Thinking about Philanthropy: how scholars and practitioners can help each other

Saturday 14 January 2017

In October, Anthony Tomei attended a two day seminar at St Andrew’s University on the theme of ‘Philanthropy – today and tomorrow’. He reports back on proceedings. 


The seminar was the last in a series of five organised by Dr Tobias Jung, Director of the newly formed Centre for the Study of Philanthropy and the Public Good, based in the Management School at the University. A key feature of the seminars is that they bring researchers and practitioners together. They are intended to produce outcomes that are of interest and value to both, and to help create the conditions for collaboration to develop in the future.

Defining philanthropy

It is possible to think of philanthropy simply as a form of benevolence, ‘love of mankind’, and as such unquestionably a good thing. The seminars took a more neutral view, defining philanthropy as: ‘the donation of time, treasure and talent for the public good’. This opens up a different set of perspectives. Philanthropy can be an individual or an institutional enterprise. It can take different forms at different times and in different places. Its outcomes can be good or bad, as can its motivations.

All these dimensions are currently playing out in a context where the expectations and demands on philanthropy are changing fast, raising questions that will be familiar to TFN readers. Governments are withdrawing from areas of the public realm with an implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that philanthropy will step in and fill the gaps. To what extent is that possible, or right? Should philanthropy be playing a different role, and if so who should determine what that role should be? Is it simply a matter for the philanthropic individual or institution, or should beneficiaries, stakeholders and indeed taxpayers (in the form of governments) have a say? To whom and to what extent should philanthropic individuals and institutions be accountable, and how should that accountability be delivered? Over the two days the seminar participants engaged with these and related questions in some depth. It was a fascinating experience. We discussed how philanthropy and its main institutional manifestation, the foundation, are conceived of very differently in different contexts and cultures. Yunus Sola of the Academy of Philanthropy talked about zakat, the duty of individual philanthropy in Muslim culture. It is estimated that zakat raises somewhere between $200 billion and $1 trillion every year.

Susan Wilkinson Maposa, former Director of the Building Community Philanthropy Programme at the University of Cape Town, showed how the concept of ‘horizontal philanthropy’ –giving between people of equal means – is developing in Africa, following the failure to establish more conventional Western models of community foundations. Marie-Louise Stoll Steffan, from the Association of Community Foundations in Berlin, told us how a new model of community philanthropy, with a focus on empowering citizens rather than becoming ‘warehouses of wealth’, was taking off in Germany. Barry Knight, who advises the Global Fund for Community Foundations, concluded the event with some characteristically thought-provoking observations about future challenges and opportunities for community foundations, similarly based on ‘bottom up’ developments and self-help rather than the trickling down of externally-derived wealth.

Several speakers discussed foundations in the more conventional sense. Tobias asked how we can develop a typology of foundations that helps us think about the huge diversity of foundation forms. While the challenge is daunting, all the participants recognised that something along these lines is necessary if scholars, policy-makers and practitioners are to be able to talk to each other in ways that are not contradictory or simply too vague. As if to warn about the dangers of underestimating the task, Rupert Strachwitz of the Maecenata Institute in Berlin gave a scholarly presentation about foundations in Germany, where the purpose of a foundation is to carry out the founder’s will, not necessarily to provide public benefit. While most are recognised as charities, other forms are possible, including some that would be anathema in the UK, such as bodies that support political parties and others that benefit individuals.

Linking to the earlier theme, Caroline Broadhurst described how The Rank Foundation’s programmes aim to combine intellectual, social and financial capital to maximise impact, recognising that philanthropic action can only be understood as part of the work of many others. Drawing on work in her recent book on foundations and public policy, Diana Leat gave a critical review of foundations’ public purposes. She examined the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments for foundations as providers and enablers of public benefit, or as ‘playthings of the rich’, concluding with cogent observations on the perennial, and perennially important, issues of legitimacy and accountability. Beth Breeze from the University of Kent described research on a new form of philanthropy, the giving circle, where individual givers work collaboratively with other donors, with all having equal standing. The research throws interesting light on the drivers and motivations for collaboration.

Three speakers addressed the question of fundraising by universities, an increasingly important domain that attracts ever larger sums. Robert Fleming, Director of Development at St Andrews, described how the university has raised £73 million towards a target of £100 million, and how it is coping with the changing demographics, personal economics and aspirations of new cohorts of graduates. Robert Dufton, drawing on his experience both as gatekeeper (at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) and poacher (at Sheffield University) discussed universities as receivers of gifts, with due attention to ‘time’ and ‘talent’ as well as ‘treasure’. Jenny Harrow, Co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at the Cass Business School presented findings from an ongoing research project that aims to discover and analyse patterns of donorship in UK universities.

There are many ways in which we who work in the foundation world benefit from working with our colleagues in academia. First, they produce the empirical data on which we increasingly rely. The Giving Trends series, led by Cathy Pharaoh and published by ACF, is a prime example. It gains in value with each new edition. Second, academics are the main source of evidence about the substantive areas in which we do our work – be that education, housing, social justice or the myriad other areas in which foundations are engaged. Arguably, foundations should be more willing to pay for such research, especially if they find that the evidence they say they need is lacking. Third, they bring intelligence and insights to bear from other domains, other times and other countries. We are not the first to wrestle with the questions of governance, effectiveness and justice that absorb us. We should learn from others who have been on the same journey and academia can help us. Fourth, they should be a source of stimulus and challenge as we struggle to identify our role in this fast-changing world, and to think through the fundamental issues of legitimacy and accountability that concern us. Finally, they should do all the above with high standards of objectivity and rigour – that is their role.

Starting point

The seminars showed that it is possible to discuss research and accounts of practical action together and to have engaged and meaningful debates from which both can learn. The organisers see this as a starting point. I hope others in the foundation world will take up the challenge so that we can develop constructive and enduring partnerships that lead to better philanthropy as well as to better scholarship. We all have much to gain.

The presentations and a summary from this seminar can be accessed at

The programmes, summaries and presentations from the seminar series are available at

Anthony Tomei CBE is a trustee of the Bell Foundation and a member of the board of ACF. He was formerly Director of the Nuffield Foundation.

This piece first appeared in the December 2016 edition of Trust & Foundation News (TFN), pp. 52-3

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    […] Tomei CBE wrote in a previous blog, ‘Philanthropy can be an individual or an institutional enterprise. It can take different forms at dif….’ Anthony’s words encapsulate the intricacy in attempting to make sense of, and overlay […]

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