Judged by the proliferation of research-inspired ventures, it may seem that we are in a golden age of philanthropic knowledge creation. Given the urgency of finding better ways to solve pressing social issues, it is not surprising that the vast majority of the research generated is applied research.
Both the standard ways of doing philanthropy and the paradigm-bending (and busting) efforts to transform and disrupt conventional approaches come armed with research findings on what works, where there are strategic gaps in expectations among key players, and how some interventions are more effective or efficient than others.
This data-driven search for solutions is awesome and inspiring. However, basic research is needed to give more coherence to this burgeoning research engagement, and to give it an even better chance at driving future innovation. There are shared fundamental questions that can tie this research together. We just need to devote some patience to pursuing basic questions, such as why do humans give? How does giving affect our social life? And how is giving connected to exchange relations in the market and to the power relations of authority?
A classic case for the value of basic research, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, was reissued this year by Princeton University Press. Written by Abraham Flexner, the man who brought Albert Einstein to America, it argues that both deeper understanding and technological progress are best facilitated not by a focus on immediately applicable solutions, but through “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge.”
Such “useless knowledge” now resides in every smartphone built from “basic” discoveries that in their time did not have ready uses, ranging from electricity to relativity to quantum mechanics. In the social sciences and humanities, basic research leads to novel designs for our social institutions (think of social security and public health) and to the ways we form our identities, express them and find meaning.
Our current philanthropic research ecosystem is highly fragmented and its inhabitants often belong to a variety of industries or professions whose connection to philanthropy is contingent on other interests and commitments. And we are in a time when there are also growing expectations of philanthropy that are only likely to increase, not only because of current political winds, but also because total annual giving at $390 billion does not seem all that small when compared to the nonmilitary portion of federal discretionary spending that stands at $518 billion a year.
In addition, alarm is being raised about declining government investment in basic research, including by the president of MIT and the head of the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s academic home. Realistically, only a small portion of flagging government support for basic science research will be funded by philanthropy. But even the campaign to fund basic science through philanthropy would benefit from a better fundamental understanding of philanthropy.
We are likely to see many more efforts to tap into philanthropy or to regulate the flow of financial resources into it. The different decisions made would benefit from a better understanding of what “it” is. Is philanthropy a tax dodge, the outsourcing of government, an agent of pluralism, or is it its own thing that reflects a fundamental feature of the human condition. It can be all of these things, but it is the last one that merits more attention.
We often hear suggestions that the market or the government would do philanthropy’s work better. One can make that argument, but it is one that seeks not to improve or understand philanthropy, but to substitute it for something else. This tells us that basic research on philanthropy is not going to succeed by walling itself off from other disciplines and ways of approaching human nature and social interaction. But at the same time, if there is a basic puzzle to investigate that focuses on the how and why of human generosity, we cannot simply follow the practitioners and thinkers who consider philanthropy to be an offshoot of market behavior or authority relations that can be managed and understood better by using only these more established lenses.
There is a surge of applied research activity to draw upon. Every association or forum for discussing the effectiveness of philanthropy is bringing its own research to the table. Just glance at the work of our established infrastructure organizations such as GuideStar, the Foundation Center, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Independent Sector, not to mention the consultancies that advise foundations on big bets or generate interpretive strategic templates such as “collective impact.”
They are generating ever more sophisticated and useful syntheses, deep dives, case studies, data tools and research reports. The Gates-funded Giving By All initiative is fostering a range of applied research on interventions that might facilitate more donations by the public at large. Even following the Stanford Social Innovation Review only begins to reveal the expanding universe of applied research and experimentation.
Our field is replete with excellent associations and consultants who serve as the McKinseys and Bains of the philanthropic world. However, we are not so blessed with the equivalent of the multitude of excellent business schools in the world of commerce that build knowledge and allow us to discern among the flurry of urgent insights by providing rigor and the perspective of broader and longer context.
We in the academic world have simply not kept up with the pace of innovation and experimentation that is being driven by research-savvy practitioners. We have not done an adequate job of building the connective sinews, as basic and applied research do not progress in isolation. They benefit from cross-pollination and creative tension between curiosity driven basic questions and applied discoveries.
As the first school of philanthropy, we have a role to play in pursuing the basic questions and engaging them with the repertoire of fundamental data generation and applied work for which we are already known. But we are not alone. For example, The Human Generosity Lab is “the first large-scale transdisciplinary research project to investigate the interrelationship between biological and cultural influences on human generosity.”
And more broadly, there has been dramatic growth in the number of academic programs that teach about philanthropy. These are mostly found in schools of public affairs and public policy, where “nonprofit management” is a growing line of instructional business. But here too, more connective tissue needs to be grown to connect data-driven innovators on the one hand and scholars outside the professional school domain on the other.
Our understanding of philanthropy and our quest to make it more effective will benefit from embracing curiosity-driven research that seeks to understand what ties our disparate concerns together in the pursuit of basic questions about human generosity.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean