In a New Journal, Another Sign That Philanthropy Scholarship Is Gaining Steam

Photo: Joel Blit/shutterstock

Photo: Joel Blit/shutterstock

Teachers College at Columbia University is launching a new academic journal called Philanthropy & Education. It describes itself as an “interdisciplinary, global journal of research” that explores one of the biggest areas of giving from various angles.

This new venture stands out, given how little peer-reviewed scholarship is conducted on philanthropy. Researchers who take seriously the immense influence of private charitable giving have no obvious home in the academy. Instead, they tend to come to this topic from different disciplines—political science, sociology, history, law—and may feel like odd fish in departments where colleagues are working on more familiar core topics. 

That’s why I’ve been pessimistic about the future of philanthropy scholarship. Professional incentives militate against the mobilization of academic fire power to tackle key questions in the field—even as philanthropy keeps growing more important.

But last year, after I wrote an article making that point—"Is a New Golden Age of Philanthropy Scholarship Dawning? Don’t Count On It"—I heard from Amir Pasic, Dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Pasic told me I had it all wrong, and he published a response in Inside Philanthropy that argued that such scholarship was flourishing. Pasic wrote, “Hundreds of scholars across the country and around the world are conducting meaningful research on myriad aspects of philanthropy, providing new knowledge and insights.”

Pasic agreed with my point that most traditional disciplines aren’t interested in philanthropy, but said that the topic was still attracting scholars from different fields who are making links back to the core concerns in their disciplines. “For example, take political science, where there is a welcome flowering of research on philanthropy. It is concerned with power and how the wealthy exercise it through their donations, whether publicly subsidized or not.”

I think that Pasic overstates things—much of the new research is of an applied nature, lacking the theoretical grounding to win respect in the ivory tower—but I’m happy to cede his larger point that philanthropy scholarship is not a lost cause. And while sometimes it feels like Pasic’s own Lilly School is nearly a monopoly provider of academic research in this space, along with a few smaller outfits like the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, new initiatives have been popping up. This journal is a case in point.   

Philanthropy and education is an obvious area for scholars to mine. In fact, it’s one that has already drawn quite a bit of attention from academics, which is why Teachers College professor Noah Drezner and several other scholars saw room for a new journal.

There’s been a notable flurry of K-12 scholarship in recent years by researchers such as Megan Tompkins-Stange, Sarah Reckhow and Jeff Henig. But it turns out the real action has been around higher education and philanthropy. Drezner told me that in the past 15 years, there have been 250 dissertations on fundraising in higher education. That’s a surprisingly high number, but it’s been hard to realize the scope of this research, Drezner said, because the findings from only about 10 percent of these dissertations have been published in academic journals. As a result, “people end up doing the same work again and again… People replicate studies without even knowing it.”

Why has so little of this research seen the light of day? Because much of it has been produced by doctoral students who are on the practitioner side of the fence, Drezner said, working in university development departments. While these folks mainly seek doctoral degrees to advance their careers and put themselves more on par with the deans and professors they work with every day, they don’t have an incentive to publish their work.

Drezner himself started out as a development officer at the University of Rochester. When he initially went for his Ph.D., he planned to go back to the practitioner side of fundraising after he completed the degree, armed with a deeper knowledge of what “motivates donors” to give to universities and colleges. Instead, Drezner got so engaged by academic work that he changed his plans and has now held faculty posts for nearly a decade, teaching at the University of Maryland before moving to Teachers College.

In 2014, Drezner and Frances Huehls published a book, Fundraising and Institutional Advancement: Theory, Practice, and New Paradigms. Huehls is an associate editor of the new journal, along with Genevieve G. Shaker. Both are part of the Lilly School of Philanthropy. Amir Pasic told me he’s excited about the journal because educational fundraising “is a large field that has been well developed professionally, but also one in which it seems that ever more institutions, private and public, are working to ramp up capacity. There is need for systematic study of what is happening and what works in this field.”

Pasic is right about the size of the educational fundraising field. As Drezner notes in an introductory article in the first issue of the journal, citing a study by Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, there are “47,000 full-time advancement professionals in U.S. and Canadian education institutions, and 81,000 professionals worldwide.” Driving the growth of this field are new pressures on universities to make up for lost government support in the U.S. and other advanced countries, as well as the recent emergence of a fundraising culture around Chinese universities. Drezner writes that “as a result of these emerging global trends, there is an increasingly international practitioner and scholar audience for research on philanthropy towards education.”

Drezner hopes the journal will connect with this audience through clearly written and jargon-free articles. He envisions contributors as a mix of academics and practitioners, as well as people like himself who have a foot in both worlds. He acknowledges the challenge of creating a cohesive body of academic work, given that scholars come to this topic from many different angles, but thinks that this interdisciplinary mash-up can be a strength, too—if more is done to pull together various threads of research. And that's exactly his plan. Drezner wrote, “As the editor of Philanthropy & Education, I hope to create a new-respected source of this scholarship in one place.”

This all seems to make sense, but the road to success could be tricky. The journal won’t just tackle K-12 and higher ed philanthropy, but will also examine issues of education and civil society broadly, looking at volunteerism, civic engagement, and corporate social responsibility. That’s a big and quite disparate agenda. Giving in the K-12 space—say, for charters schools—is dramatically different than private funding of higher ed, while education’s role in civic life is a third kettle of fish. It will be interesting to see how well this broad mandate coheres over time and also whether the journal can elevate the status of philanthropy scholarship within the broader academic world. Stanley Katz, a historian at Princeton University, expressed doubts to me on that second point. 

This is not going to be so easy for them—partly because of the historic contempt most established scholars have for "education" scholarship in general and Teachers College in particular. They’ll also be up against the bias of scholars for disciplinary research and disciplinary journals. How are peers going to evaluate a TC journal on philanthropy (not widely recognized as a field, much less a discipline). I'm skeptical. 

What is clear, though, is that the timing of this new journal is excellent. Beyond the global growth of fundraising for education, there's been a rise in overall interest in philanthropy. Benjamin Sosksis, a historian and research associate at the Urban Institute, told me he wasn't surprised to hear about the launch of a new journal in this field. 

Philanthropy is attracting more scrutiny across the board these days, including from academics. After being somewhat under-appreciated by many scholars, there's now a resurgent academic interest in philanthropy, not just in terms of evaluation, and questions of administration and management, but with regard to broader questions of democratic legitimacy. And so while philanthropy often appeared in the margins of scholarly works, it's now being brought to the center… Scholars, like many other Americans, are trying to figure out both the benefits and perils of large-scale giving.