ERNOP2019: Reflections of a former academic turned practitioner


Lev Fejes


As I walked in (late, due to airport delays) to the Kollegienhaus at the University of Basel to attend my first ERNOP conference, the first thing that hit me was the heat. It was a metallic heat, akin to that of a tin can left out for too long on a hot summer day. In the packed auditorium this caused discomfort to most participants, huffing and puffing while trying to stay focused and hydrated. However, discomfort quickly gave way to ‘oohs and ahs’ (but also ‘ohs’) as the day wore on.

The sheer amount of quality information presented is expected from a conference that gathers the best of the best and the up and coming researchers on philanthropy, hence the ‘oohs and ahs’. However, taking a plunge back into the academic world after three years working as a practitioner in a mid-sised support organisation (AKA nonprofit intermediary organisation) in Romania, made me realise painfully aware of some shortcomings, hence the ‘ohs’. Since this is a short post, I will focus on avenues for improvement (i.e. the ‘ohs’).

We (still) seem to speak different languages. Not only in terms of how we express ourselves (academic jargon versus practitioner lingo), the meanings that we attribute to certain concepts, the understanding of the underlying phenomena, but also in terms of the topics that are at the forefront of discussions, as well as the areas of the worlds on which academic research focuses on. We seem to have a lot of discussions based largely on a US or Western European perspective, but less about (for example) Eastern European perspectives, especially in the current context of the shrinking of civil space. Also, it seems that we are still talking about/focusing on statistical significance, significance of the studies with relation to the advancement of knowledge, but less on practical significance or the significance of findings for policy. This begs the examination of what are we talking about and how we are talking about the selected topics, but also what we are not talking about.

Maybe it is the heat, the nature of some of the questions asked by practitioners in a couple of sessions at the conference, maybe my preconceived ideas (and previous experiences) of how substantial the disconnect academia and practitioners really is, or the lack of overview of the academic field in philanthropy (after all, despite my master’s degree in nonprofit organisation management, my Ph.D. is in criminology), but I perceive that it seems that we are wearing blinders. Blinders that, aside from the occasional lateral glance, hinder us from seeing outside of our chosen field, disconnect us from the logic of how ‘things work on the ground’, from the very phenomenon that we wish to study and ultimately understand.

I consider that it is necessary to (re)connect with the phenomena that is in the focal point of the academic research performed by scholars in the ERNOP network and to connect practitioners with cutting edge academic research. Connecting with the ‘realities on the ground’ may also lead to the (re)examination of ideas and consider their potential for misuse. For example, some have argued for the need of greater transparency for foundations. All in all, a salutary proposition, and one that my organisation has been advocating for in the past 17 years. However, as illiberal governments in several European countries use the guise of greater transparency to restrict the functioning of ‘undesirable’ NGOs critical of such governments and replacing independent organisations with state power subservient NGOs, thus altering the ecosystem and diluting criticism, it is essential to peak beyond our blinders.

Furthermore, the fact that irrespective of the session I participated in, visual representations of knowledge on a specific topic within philanthropy always showed the same large greyed-out area: Eastern Europe (among other, less studied regions) is disconcerting. My take is that it is essential that we examine the source and type of the data that we use in scientific inquiries, as well the way we use data. A closer collaboration with nonprofits that either regularly or occasionally conduct research in EE may lead to access to a wealth of data that can be used to perform higher level analyses that are useful for academia and practitioners alike.

In closing, it is important to note that while it may seem so, my goal was not to remonstrate any or all, as this conference was genuinely outstanding. However, it is my conviction that a greater openness towards practitioners, (re)connecting with the filed, and peaking beyond one’s own blinders would open new opportunities to significantly advance the understanding of the phenomenon under study, have practical contributions to the philanthropic field and maybe lessen the number of grey areas on our maps. After all, science with and for society is not just a catchphrase for ERNOP!

Lev Fejes is Head of Research at Association for Community Relations

The European Research Network On Philanthropy is an association of more than 250 academics aiming to advance philanthropy research in Europe. Learn more by visiting the website and sign up to the quarterly newsletter.

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