When at the age of 10, I took the name of Catherine of Siena as my confirmation name, little did I realize that three decades later, I would journey to the Italian town of Siena for a week of reflection on civil society. But leaving my cold winter for a European summer in Tuscany was no hard ask, although arriving in 35+ degrees Celsius and being surrounded by copious cobblestones where cars don’t drive was a sweltering adjustment to the senses.
Catherine of Siena served the poor with wisdom and happiness. In 1377 she learned to write and wrote hundreds of letters, reaching out to popes, rulers and leaders of armies; no mean feat for a woman at that time. She was given a Doctorate of the Church in 1970 and her remains lie in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena. It was rather ironic to stay right next door with nearly 50 PhD candidates from around the globe to discuss and dissect our own doctoral theses research so as to offer suggestions and discussion for improvement and insight which will hopefully lead to further advancement of knowledge of the third sector and better partnerships.
For many, this was a chance for constructive feedback and to make lifelong connections; to ask the ‘silly’ questions and be pressed on improving your research approaches in ways you may not have considered. It was a fantastic opportunity that was offered for the first time by the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR). On the conclusion of the PhD workshops, the 10th ISTR conference began with over 660 researchers and practitioners from more than 66 countries arriving to discuss civil society, philanthropy and all the multidisciplinary topics that the third sector encompasses. Much has changed globally because of marketization, the media, democracy, natural and man-made disasters… the list goes on. Roles have also changed and the partnerships have been strengthened (well there’s the first debate!) between the government, charities, corporations and research institutions all trying to improve social services and issues such as poverty alleviation, an ageing population and the environment.
The conference brings together not only people from all corners of the globe but also from various schools of business, geography, philosophy, sociology, etc. The diversity is a positive but can often be a source of frustration and loneliness in your own local community where you may be the only one doing research of your kind. But the common denominator is of making a difference in the world, to change things for the better and to learn from each others ideas on how to do this. So research is varied – accountants deciphering charity annual reports, business schools looking at social enterprises and entrepreneurship, and plenty of research into volunteerism, competing crises and political science. Each scholar comes from a distinctive perspective, trying a different methodological approach or theoretical framework. Most are magical and inspiring but of course some leave you scratching your head. PowerPoint tables of quantitative numbers usually have me in urgent need of an espresso, but the sheer interaction of like-minded people seeking human and planetary wellbeing made my heart soar. OK, I may have been influenced in that I arrived from Florence, where the Renaissance emerged, but it does once again feel like we are in a powerful time of cultural and social movement ‒ as the keynote and plenary sessions from John Keane and Rami Khouri attested.
There is no doubt that the third sector is diverse and the sheer array of topics rather incredible but workshops of the latest cutting-edge research were themed so you could pick your area of interest. The conference was the first time I have presented at an international conference and gave me a forum to highlight initial findings and discuss ideas for future research. These conferences allow an opportunity to thrash out your own thoughts and listen to others doing the same in a passionate environment of like-minded people, including some who are leading specialists in their fields. To know that there are others out there lying awake at night trying to solve societal problems was motivating. To know that other countries and sectors are facing similar dilemmas in light of competing problems with declining resources highlights the strength of working together, or to at least look at ways others are solving community issues.
So whether you have the compassion of Catherine of Siena or aim to be the Renaissance Man, being part of a cultural movement to improving this world is amazing, stimulating and more important, absolutely vital. I challenge you to be creative in ways to relook at the issues and to let a bit of the heart back into the equation. Wherever your head and heart sit, ISTR is a must for anyone who wants to be a part of positively changing and contributing to our world, who loves research and is proactive in being a part of and/or documenting the citizen revolt needed to make that happen.
Rosemary Hermans is a current PhD candidate studying leadership perspectives of the third sector and a board member for the non-profit Alpha Autism.
Further reports from recent international conferences covered by Alliance magazine can be viewed on the Alliance website.