‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ Research on philanthropy amidst public scrutiny and criticism


Hanna Stähle


When I arrive in Basel to attend the 2019 ERNOP conference, I am puzzled by the peace, undisturbed tranquillity and calm beauty that surrounds me – what a contrast to hectic, busy Berlin these days. It feels as if everybody is looking at me, wondering what I am possibly going to do in my business clothes on this hot, mid-summer day. And yet, I am not alone – researchers from all over Europe as well as Canada, Israel, Kenya, Singapore and the US come to the University of Basel to share their latest insights into the research on philanthropy, enduing hot weather and stuffy classrooms.

‘Philanthropy in the Spotlight? Resources, Reputation and Achievements’ was the theme of the 9th international Conference 2019 organised by ERNOP, European Research Network on Philanthropy, and hosted by the Center for Philanthropy Studies at the University of Basel, that brought together practitioners and academics from a wide range of disciplines, among them law, philosophy, economics, political and social sciences.

Basel, ‘the Swiss capital of foundations’, as Prof. Dr. Georg von Schnurbein aptly said in his welcoming speech, is globally one of the cities with the highest density of foundations and a special place in the history of Swiss philanthropy. In times of growing inequality and polarisation, however, philanthropy attracts not only public appraisal and appreciation of donors’ generosity and strategic insight but also leads to rising concerns, criticism or even downright condemnation.

At the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, yet another prominent place in Switzerland, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman criticised the global elite over tax avoidance and called to stop preaching philanthropy: ‘I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance’. Bregman’s statement received wide circulation on the internet and attracted much media attention.

This critique resembles what Anand Giridharadas described in his bestselling book ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’. He wrote: ‘How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, of more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change.’

In a similar vein, Rob Reich, professor of political science at Stanford University and co-director of the Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, addressed the role of big philanthropy. In his keynote speech at the ERNOP Conference he said that ‘we should not automatically celebrate one’s exercise of power. We should scrutinise this exercise’. Reich criticised the language of effectiveness that permeates contemporary philanthropy (see also Phil Buchanan’s recently released book ‘Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count’). In his view, effectiveness in itself is not a value, only if the goal is good. ‘Philanthropists can be strategic and more efficient. However, they can still undermine democracy’. The question of what role philanthropy should play in a liberal democratic society and how policy shapes individual giving is at the heart of his recently released book ‘Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better’. Unlike Giridharadas and other critics of philanthropy, Reich is not polemical; his findings are results of a vigorous academic research, not personal experiences or anecdotal observations. Yet his conclusions are no less disquieting: ‘Big philanthropy is often an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and lavishly tax-advantaged.’

This critical engagement with philanthropy set the tone for the conference and provided space for inspiring debates and tough questions. At the panel ‘What Role for Philanthropy: Theory and Empirical Evidence’, sociologist Ilana Silber put criticism of mega philanthropy into perspective. Today, she explained, public scrutiny of philanthropy is linked to the questions of policy and individual wealth, though criticism has been always accompanying philanthropy and is not without controversy: ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

The ERNOP conference has demonstrated how versatile and diverse the face of contemporary philanthropy is. It is not enough to speak about big philanthropy and giving pledges, we need to address more nuanced aspects of philanthropy such as fundraising, volunteering, corporate philanthropy, philanthropy and impact, governmental policies toward individual and institutional giving, legal aspects of cross-border giving, to name but a few issues addressed at the conference in Basel.

‘There is still a long way to go for the research field to incorporate the wide variety of giving behaviour’, concludes Arjen de Wit, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Philanthropic Studies. Indeed, we are at the very beginning of establishing philanthropy studies as a recognised field of research with its own methodology, object of study and set of questions. ERNOP plays an important role in providing platform for exchange and international collaboration. The 2021 ERNOP conference will take place at the Sutherland School of Law – University College Dublin so note July 1-2 in your electronic agenda.

Hanna Stähle holds a PhD in Slavic Cultural Studies (summa cum laude) from the University of Passau. She is Aide to the General Secretary of the Association of German Foundations and Project and Communications Manager at DAFNE.

The European Research Network On Philanthropy is an association of more than 250 academics aiming to advance philanthropy research in Europe. Learn more about their work by visiting the website http://www.ernop.eu and sign up to the quarterly newsletter.

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