Philanthropy and the challenge of (super)diversity


Arjen de Wit


As the ERNOP Conference in Basel shows, philanthropy research is re-inventing the concept of philanthropy.

Academic research has the reputation of being a relatively slow business. Researchers only analyse the past, because we have no data about the future. In philanthropy research, too, often lags behind social reality. The ERNOP conference did a great job to invite two keynote speakers, political philosopher Rob Reich and social researcher Pamala Wiepking, in order to discuss the problems with (prof. Reich) and value of (prof. Wiepking) of today’s philanthropy. But what is today’s philanthropy? ‘Most citizens associate the word with white, male big philanthropy’, Wiepking notes, followed by a convincing appeal to take into account the terminologies and concepts of generosity from around the world.

When attending the parallel sessions where most current studies are presented, it is clear that we don’t have to go far away to find some diversity. The recent influx of refugees in Europe provide a case study of new forms of philanthropy. As an interesting study by University of Heidelberg’s Georg Mildenberger and Verena Schmid shows, a local refugee shelter led to citizens spontaneously helping, with some of them never volunteered before. Without formal structure or organisational framework, they quickly built up connections with refugees. ‘These relations not only reinforce the self-commitment, it also helps to undermine the institutional order and routines’, the authors tell the ERNOP audience. ‘The relationships are more important than structure and functions.’ This evolves into a process of politicisation, in which enthusiastic spontaneous volunteers become more and more an actor in a heated political debate.

In the same conference session, a similar study by Itay Greenspan and Marlene Walk questions the concept of volunteering among immigrants. This study uses the German Volunteering Survey with traditional measures of formal volunteering (in the context of a nonprofit organisation) and informal volunteering (caring for friends and family). They show that immigrants are less likely to volunteer than native-born Germans, but the differences are smaller for informal volunteering. Second-generation immigrants participate as much in informal volunteering as do native-borns.

With such contributions, philanthropy research shows that it is able to engage with contemporary issues. There is a long-standing discussion about how global notions of helping behavior fits into the Western conceptualisation of philanthropy. Yet, these attempts are only a careful beginning. Modern European societies are diverse, with large cities even moving towards a state of ‘super-diversity’ with natives no longer being the majority. This presents exciting challenges for researchers to incorporate new forms of philanthropy, from remittances to virtual volunteering and from Ubuntu to Zakat. There is still a long way to go for the research field to incorporate the wide variety of giving behavior.

Arjen de Wit is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU Amsterdam

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 and sign up to the quarterly newsletter.

Tagged in: #ERNOP2019

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