After an extended period without face-to-face gatherings, the 15th research conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR) had a celebratory air, as over 225 attendees and over 100 remote participants engaged over plenaries, paper sessions, roundtables and networking breaks. We toasted the 30th anniversary of ISTR and welcomed a robust cohort of new PhD recipients into our ranks.
While the number of papers presented was smaller than usual, the quality was high. I was particularly struck with the apparent embrace of broader definitions of philanthropy to include social enterprises, venture philanthropy and indigenous forms of giving well beyond the foundation grant-making model. A roundtable on the ‘guardians’ of philanthropy research explored the challenges beyond the dearth of donors for research. Cultural norms promoting anonymity in giving make data collection difficult; they also prevent successful new models of philanthropy from being diffused readily. Trustees in philanthropic institutions too often equate being private with being secretive, even when their staffs understand the benefits of sharing data. The closing space for civil society also impacts philanthropy research, as increasing numbers of governments refuse permits for field studies or deny access to the rich institutional data they themselves hold.
Creative strategies for addressing these gatekeepers include finding and supporting data champions wherever they are located within government. The infrastructure for philanthropy is growing and includes universities and other data analysis organization: where these are strong, lobbying and capacity building efforts around the need for research are beginning to pay off. Sometimes researchers themselves in-country can take advantage of a crisis situation to demonstrate the role of rapid data analysis for targeting aid to the beneficiaries that need it most.
Finally, several sessions of the conference pointed to the importance of ethical oversight of big data and the applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Within those cautions, AI may hold promise in utilizing large numbers of data points to predict and prevent humanitarian disasters such as mass genocide. AI may also prove useful in making the complex legal context for civil society more transparent and comparable across countries and jurisdictions.
Barbara Lethem Ibrahim, American University in Cairo