Commencement is usually full of happy, albeit familiar, accolades. But this year we were privileged to hear two penetrating insights that may prove vital to the future of philanthropy.
One was from an award-winning master’s degree graduate, Joshua Moore, who shared his surprise that attendees at a major conference on philanthropy knew so very little about the breadth and depth of their field. So many professionals in philanthropy are unaware of the history and the systematic knowledge that relates to their work.
What difference does that make? Since when is academic preparation related to performance on the job? Basic research and scholarship expose students to how our work was done differently in the past, instilling an understanding of what our profession has learned along the way and why we do things the way we do. This means it prepares them to do things differently.
It helps to know the ingredients and how they interact so that you can try to improve the recipe. If all you’ve done is observe how things are currently done, you know how to follow a single recipe. You’ll have a hard time making significant improvements or implementing corrections when things go awry.
It is far better to know the economics, ethics, history, psychology, and comparative international context of how philanthropy can be and has been conducted and understood. This opens up the possibilities for creative and effective change, grounded in historical and theoretical knowledge that is distilled from many more stories and cases than a single individual could possibly experience in a lifetime.
Look at the most pragmatic of all professions, the broad catchall we call business. Even if you don’t have a business degree, you’ll appreciate the value of a business school experience to enrich and advance the universal human activity of engaging in exchange.
The equally ancient human activity of giving deserves no less. I was so proud that one of our newest graduates reminded us that we cannot take for granted that our colleagues in this field have a learned approach to philanthropy, and that we need to continually demonstrate its benefits, which are prominently in evidence in the success of our alumni.
Our second insight continued to build on this theme of knowledge in philanthropy. It was offered by Rusty Stahl, M.A. ’00, founder and CEO of Fund the People, our commencement speaker. Known in the field as a prominent advocate of “talent-investing,” he encouraged our students to focus on nurturing talent throughout their careers.
Paradoxically, in a field that often proclaims that the highest return on investment comes through grants that support entrepreneurial talent to generate social and economic innovation, the professionals who sustain our nonprofit sector—and especially in social services—receive scant support.
In other sectors, investment in talent is the preferred method to increase performance and impact. Too often in our nonprofit sector, our vaunted civil society, we see our human resources as a burden, as “overhead.” Or we find a self-abnegating “martyrdom” complex in our most devoted colleagues that prevents them from spending resources to enhance their talents in order to achieve more and better results. Rusty’s cause seeks to bring knowledge and resources to the people whose work results in social good – creating the social impact we expect from philanthropy.
Our student sees the pervasive ignorance of the treasury of thoughtful engagement with philanthropy. This is the professional world he is joining. Our experienced alumnus finds widespread underinvestment in the talented men and women who are the sinews of our civil society. He faces an uphill battle as his own research shows that foundations devote a mere 1 percent to such efforts.
But thanks to their shared educational experience, they both know it does not have to be so. There is a record of enlightened philanthropic engagement and a body of critical and applied scholarship that informs not only their moral imagination but their professional purpose. We are all fortunate to have them and their insights. Let us watch how their insight continues to inform the difference they make.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean