Philanthropy was on the scholarly agenda at the vibrant International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) conference last week at the University of Siena.
The conference handbook listed (conservatively) 17 sessions on the philanthropy research track. With an average of three papers delivered per session, this amounted to more than 50 papers on philanthropy and foundations. Subjects ranged from the role of foundations in the field of philanthropy studies and research to the relationships between donors and recipients, while a highly interactive pre-conference workshop shared approaches to teaching philanthropy on courses at the University of California, Berkeley and Georgetown, Washington. We learned about how undergraduate students ‘built’ their own foundations values, mission and strategy and bid for the allocation of US$10,000-15,000.
However, it was clear from an academic perspective that much remains unknown about philanthropy and foundations, and a repeated concern was the variable level of access to data about foundations. In a session prosaically titled ‘Determinants of foundation development’, several researchers talked about the need to open the ‘black box’ of foundation decision-making and look inside what actually goes on at foundations. Our foundation’s collaboration with the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy (CGAP) to produce reliable and accessible trend data on the spending of family foundations is one small step in that direction.
Still, more sustained and deeper interaction between scholars and philanthropy practitioners could prove fruitful for both parties. First, foundations might benefit from greater engagement with the research community and the chance to reflect critically on their practice away from the daily business of grant management. Second, the academic field might benefit from the presence of more practitioners and the experiences that inform their work. It could also lead, over time, to more resources being invested by foundations in understanding their own field.
Sadly, though, such interaction is currently limited, something reflected by the presence of only a handful of foundation representatives at the ISTR conference. But great potential exists for new and mutually rewarding relationships and the next biennial ISTR conference presents both an opportunity and a platform for this to happen. I hope the opportunity is seized.
Charles Keidan is director of Pears Foundation.
The September issue of Alliance will have a special feature looking at ‘What can data do for philanthropy?’, which will include a short piece on CGAP/Pears Foundation’s production of trend data on family foundation spending and what this has led to.