At the latest ARNOVA conference, Kim Jonker of Stanford University used the metaphor of the Grand Canyon to describe the gulf between researchers and practitioners.
Considering that the nonprofit sector constitutes about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce and 5 percent of GDP, I am constantly reminded how little practitioners in the field know about research and scholarship on the philanthropy that helps fuel and inspire the sector.
At the same time, I am equally struck by how rarely academics appreciate the nature of the urgent challenges faced by nonprofit practitioners. Add to this the lack of knowledge or interest by the vast majority of policymakers in government, and I fear that Alexis de Tocqueville might despair about the prospects for this most American of sectors.
It is remarkable that our faith, educational, health, social service, arts and other fields where nonprofits operate thrive and succeed as much as they do given the poor flow of knowledge among the research, practitioner, and policy communities.
We do have important infrastructure organizations that work to make connections among these communities, and they deserve to be better supported. But we also need to welcome ways of thoroughly rethinking how we do our work. If we don’t, we perpetuate the condition where the communities so vital to our civil society continue to operate on opposite sides of the gulf.
We should welcome thoughtful critiques of philanthropy and proposals for how to do things entirely differently. When grounded in sound knowledge about the sector—like Rob Reich’s new book Just Giving, or Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution—these critiques will not only lead to new ways of approaching issues, they should also spur interest among those with little background to better appreciate what our voluntary sector is made of.
We have many studies of how to manage or strategize better, but little appreciation for the broad context through which the civic sector shapes who we are and how we relate to each other. There is, of course, the danger that visible critique, if only consumed in telegraphic bits on social media, will reaffirm poorly informed, dismissive attitudes about the mistaken perception that the nonprofit world underperforms. But this is a risk worth taking to shake up the institutional barriers that prevent the flows of knowledge and talent we need to make progress.
We need more power and resources behind institutions that already work to bridge research, practice, and policy, like Independent Sector and ARNOVA. These and other important infrastructure organizations seek to connect practitioners and policymakers, often drawing on research to make their case. But they are often perceived as advocates for their members rather than independent knowledge brokers who open up a deeper understanding of the sector’s possibilities.
Furthermore, there is no institution that nurtures nonprofit-savvy policy wonks to seize the commanding heights—the plum positions that need staffing when a change of presidential administration reshuffles talent.
Much of the work our school does through our institutes and our research department purposefully seeks to straddle academia, practice, and policy. We succeed where the research and practitioner communities are thoroughly enmeshed and where the research and practitioner communities cannot imagine moving forward without engaging each other. We think this is the case with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute and Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.
Many groups focused on gender in philanthropy understand their identity through the research generated by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. And the institute would have no reason for being without its engagement with practitioners.
The case is similar with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving in the realm of congregational and faith-based philanthropic communities. The institute serves as a kind of mirror for researchers and practitioners on issues related to money and faith so that they each see their work and its value reflected in what the other does. We are working to create a similar symbiosis between research and practice in the realm of inclusive philanthropy through our Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy.
In other areas, closer to the core of academe and the general practice of philanthropy, we still have much work to do. The Science of Philanthropy Initiative Conference that we host annually with the University of Chicago Economics Department brings together scholars and practitioners around experiments to improve philanthropy. But this annual festival of mutual enthusiasm is only just beginning to create a regular and meaningful connection across research and practitioner communities.
Each community continues to define its purposes and its priorities without the sense that they are serving each other. Add to this the general distance of policymakers from both communities and we truly have a third sector as a whole that is poorly served.
Our faculty at the school seem keen to include policy and practitioner relevance in the incentives we create for faculty knowledge production. But this will be a gradual evolution that involves practitioners telling us how we are doing. And even if we make great progress in this area, we cannot dictate change to the broader body of academics who study the sector.
On the practitioner side, it is the rare and usually large nonprofit that creates incentives for knowledge capture and sharing among its staff, and then usually for knowledge that remains inside the organization.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the Rockefeller Foundation’s first Chief Knowledge Management Officer, whose position was created only in 2012. On the policy side, the sector’s dominant policy interactions take place at the level of tax policy or under the auspices of the state attorney general.
The problem is that we do not have enough opportunities for bridging conversations across the communities that have formed to advance different aspects of philanthropy. In this, nonprofit and philanthropic studies are not alone. International Relations, a field that arose in tandem with the policy institutions that enabled the U.S.-led international world order that emerged after World War II, has since become so removed from practice that a program of reconnection has emerged to bridge the gap.
Over time, successful communities create boundaries that define them and allow them to systematically perpetuate themselves. Such is the case with the academic community and many practitioner communities in philanthropy.
Many of us are too comfortable having familiar conversations within our respective communities. To generate more useful knowledge that will lead to better outcomes in society, we need to invite in more discomfort and critique to shed light on what is not working, and what could work much better and for more people.
We need less polite nodding about the importance of the research-to-practice connection and more permanent forums where we come to define what we aim for and how we go about it through ongoing conversations that reconstitute new communities of practical knowledge.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean