Basel was hot last week! Those of us who had travelled from cooler climes found ourselves in a context that put us just a little out of our comfort zones. However, the surroundings were beautiful, the drinks cool and the people we were interacting with were interesting and passionate about our topic – philanthropy!
With this in mind, we were able to tackle the overall theme of the conference – philanthropy in context, good and bad – with gusto! ERNOP exists to research the practice of philanthropy, to understand the institutional and social structures in which it takes place and seek ways in which this understanding may lead to improving the practice overall. And that is what this year’s conference in Basel sought to tackle from day one.
The 2019 host, Prof. Georg von Schurbein, opened proceedings asking us as philanthropy scholars to consider what purpose our inquiries serve, contextualising his questions with a brief history of and the growth of the ERNOP family. He sought to outline how ERNOP has developed from being a small group of scholarly philanthropy enthusiasts to critical friends and explore how these two roles may interact with each other. Keynote speakers, sociologist Dr Pamala Wiepking and political philosopher Prof. Rob Reich, asked us to rethink and revise what we – researchers, philanthropists and askers – envisage the role of philanthropy to be in creating and maintaining generous societies; and to constantly interrogate how the contexts, culture and perspectives from which it is practiced contributes to whether it serves as a force for building democratic and inclusive societies versus reproducing exclusion and injustice. Lynda Mansson, director of the MAVA Foundation, outlined the lived reality of an actual philanthropist and his team, explaining how their specific contexts and situations have shaped and do shape their everyday practice.
I attended sessions asking questions about why children give, exploring how we educate them and fundraise from them at an early age alters their natural charitable and pro-social behaviours (Dr. Ali Body from University of Kent and Cesar SahelicesPinto from University of Leon). Dr Craig Furneaux (Austrialian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies) and Dr Esther Muddiman (WISERD – Cardiff University) explored how early interactions with religion and family contexts shape giving and volunteering habits later in life. In a session on transparency and governance Peter Schubert (University of Hamburg) and Fanny Dethier (University of Liège) explored the ways in which the information NPOs gather and share, create the informational contexts in which giving decisions are formed. In sessions where I presented with Dr Simone Kraemer, Dr Marta Herrero, Dr Maria Gallow, Tjeerd Piersma and Roy Y. Chan, we sought to understand how the way we ask for philanthropic gifts may affect the way in which they are given. Certainly, what emerged from these is that the relationships formed and made between those who give and those who receive are paramount to creating the ‘better kind’ of philanthropy our keynote speakers suggested we may be seeking.
At the heart of all this study on philanthropy and giving is a celebration of the charitable impulse and all it can contribute to making a more generous, exclusive, kinder society. But we were also left acutely aware that the contexts, institutions and practices within which philanthropic practice in all its forms is embedded and adopts can fundamentally alter and, sometimes corrupt, it. We all have a responsibility to continue to seek out and understand what these contexts may be, how they impact on and what we can do to prevent a slide into the dark side philanthropic practice. Conferences like ERNOP provide a space to do this thinking. The ongoing challenge is how to incorporate this sense of thoughtfulness and consideration into every aspect of our wider philanthropic practice and research.
Lesley Alborough is a post doctoral researcher at the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent.
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.