As researcher, I know how valuable and important it is to be challenged. And what better time to get pulled out of the comfort zone than right at the beginning of a conference.
I vividly remember a keynote speech held by Katherine Milligan of Schwab Foundation at the Basel Convention on Philanthropy in November 2018. Taking the conference theme ‘A Plea for Collaboration’ as starting point, she acknowledged the potential of philanthropy and inter-sectoral collaboration for sustainable development. But without addressing the three ‘elephants in the room’ – mistrust, power imbalances, and ego – she argued, this potential could be significantly hampered. These ‘elephants’ went on to be an important talking point throughout the conference.
A similarly thought-provocative speech set the scene for this year’s ERNOP conference in Basel and subsequently resonated throughout the rest of the conference. It is fair to say that Rob Reich challenged us conference participants in his keynote on the dark sides of philanthropy – really challenged us. Yes, he did point to the potential of philanthropy to do good. But he insisted that many barriers still stand in the way of truly inclusive philanthropy. In a nutshell, he argued that:
- (Big) philanthropy often lacks accountability and transparency, continues to be donor-directed and too often functions as a sort of ‘generosity for the advantaged’.
- There is a lack of societal discourse on the actual objectives of philanthropy. While efficiency of philanthropy has taken center stage in academic and public debate, the evaluation of its goals – and their value in and for modern democracies – is an area largely neglected.
Is (big) philanthropy then nothing more than a misplaced notion in democratic settings, as Rob Reich provocatively asked towards the end of his speech? No! Philanthropy is definitely much more than that, and it can and does produce significant benefits for society. But yes, philanthropy does have its dark sides.
As researchers we are called upon not only to understand the positive sides of philanthropy and further improve them, but also to take a close(r) look at potentially negative aspects of philanthropy and the way these can be overcome. Self-critically examining our own field of research will allow us to move societal discourse beyond the polemics we have experienced as of late – for example surrounding the reconstruction promises of Notre Dame – but also beyond a potentially complacent view on philanthropy as perceived from our ‘bubble’.
There is work to do! Let’s see what the next years of (critical) philanthropy research hold in store and what new insights we will gain between now and ERNOP 2021 in Dublin.
Nicholas Arnold is a research assistant at the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) in Basel.
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.