The growth of philanthropy studies, the increasing number of academics who would call themselves philanthropy scholars and the fact that philanthropy is attracting interest from leading scholars across the disciplinary spectrum are encouraging developments for philanthropy practitioners. As the field matures, however, there is a danger that these positive signs will mask some of the challenges ahead.
One key question is who should fund philanthropy scholarship and what restrictions will the source of funding place on scholars? What would happen if scholars are critical not just of philanthropy as an institution but also of philanthropists whose names increasingly adorn the buildings in their institutions? Will scholars feel the frosty gaze of university leaderships and fundraisers driven to secure more philanthropic cash as part of their institution’s survival strategy at a time of government cuts to higher education?
The obvious and arguably ideal scenario is that universities should fund research on philanthropy themselves as part of their commitment to building the knowledge base. Universities could do this through academics electing to use their freedom to research topics relevant to philanthropy or by universities seeking support from philanthropists and foundations or other non-profit partners.
The philanthropy studies field competes for space, conceptually speaking, with civil society studies, voluntary sector studies, non-profit management studies and social entrepreneurship, to name a few.
There are difficulties either way. First and foremost, only a small number of researchers investigate philanthropy. Academic incentives tend to focus attention on publishing in highly ranked peer-reviewed journals. While some journals accommodate studies of philanthropy, none to date have philanthropy in the title.
Some scholars successfully bridge the gap between rigour and relevance, as Tracey Coule highlights, but they remain the exception. In addition, the philanthropy studies field competes for space, conceptually speaking, with civil society studies, voluntary sector studies, non-profit management studies and social entrepreneurship, to name a few.
Given these challenges, philanthropists and foundations may seem obvious candidates to help build the field either through funding academic research on philanthropy, or by creating academic centres, chairs and lectureships.
Yet, with notable exceptions, universities have been surprisingly slow in seeking funds for research on philanthropy at their own institutions. As one vice chancellor told me,1 the idea of encouraging funding to research philanthropy is ‘a bit of a leap’.
Few funders appear to have been approached by universities to support research in this area. One foundation director told me that his foundation had ‘never’ been asked to fund research on philanthropy, despite daily contact with universities and millions awarded annually in grants to the higher education field.
There are, however, signs that this might be changing, both because of new donor interest and a growing market of higher education fundraisers who are already acting as a stimulus to more research on donor motivations.
The rise of philanthropic funding of research centres, posts and chairs in philanthropy is even more of a double-edged sword.
The most advanced and best-resourced universities are drawing on cutting-edge research from behavioural scientists to elicit higher donations. While this is a positive development for research on donor motivations, and has the virtue of responding to the needs of fundraising practitioners, it risks narrowing the scope of scholarly research.
The rise of philanthropic funding of research centres, posts and chairs in philanthropy is even more of a double-edged sword. Philanthropic resources undoubtedly help lift the field but they also influence the direction of research though funding particular research questions or by funding posts in disciplines more naturally sympathetic to philanthropy.
Thus it is striking that much recent provision in Europe is situated in business schools asking technical questions about impact, organizational management and strategy rather than normative questions about legitimacy, accountability and plutocracy. How different would the field look if more of this new provision were associated with philosophy, sociology and political science?
It is critical that donors, researchers and universities find ways to navigate these challenges as the field develops. Full disclosure of funding agreements and correspondence should be the norm. But transparency is only part of the solution.
A healthy society requires the independent thought that is the hallmark of academia. If academics feel pressure to restrict the scope of their enquiries they will be less likely to do what they do best – bite the hand that feeds them.
Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org