My Philanthropy Education

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A remarkable experiment is underway in American higher education. Across the country, students are being entrusted by philanthropists with tens of thousands of dollars – real dollars – to give to charity. These courses, known as “student philanthropy,” aim to engage students with both the norms and challenges of charitable giving, and to cultivate a sense of civic responsibility. There are now around 50 such courses running across the US. They are encouraged by university leaderships as part of ‘service learning’ efforts, and funded by philanthropic organisations, such as Doris Buffett’s Learning by Giving Foundation, Geoffrey Raynor’s Philanthropy Lab and Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen’s Project U, which launched an online philanthropy massive open online course, or MOOC, in 2014. Philanthropy courses vary within and across institutions in terms of funding, disciplinary settings and pedagogical methods, but students usually receive around $10,000 to $100,000 to distribute. 

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On a sunny morning on 1 April 2013, I started co-teaching one such course during a memorable sabbatical as a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University in California. After almost a decade as the inaugural director of the Pears Foundation, a Jewish family foundation based in London, my sabbatical was an opportunity to reflect on my time at the Foundation, deepen my research interests and broaden my philanthropic horizons. Stanford’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where I was based, sits inside the white-hot cauldron of Silicon Valley philanthropy. It provided an ideal vantage point from which to observe and experience a new and permissive philanthropic life and culture, far away from the rarified and somewhat staid world of Jewish philanthropy back in the UK. But it was not the glitz and allure of new Silicon philanthropies – established by such titans as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn – that provided the best moments. 

Rather, it was the experience of being back in the classroom with a roomful of enquiring students. Fortunately, I was not alone. Bruce Sievers, another former foundation director, whom I had met on a panel at the Jewish Funders Network in Tel Aviv a couple of years earlier, became my colleague and mentor. For over ten years, Sievers has run a political science and ethics class at Stanford titled Theories of Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector. A pioneer in modern philanthropy education, Sievers’ class offers students a tour de force of philanthropy, including a historical grounding in the formation of civil society in Europe, key theories of philanthropy, and an overview of their influence on American associational life.

Situating the study of philanthropy within the context of broader civil society activities, together with historical, philosophical and theoretical reference points, helps to deepen students’ understanding of the range of questions, possibilities and choices surrounding philanthropic practice. This framing was crucial in enabling the students’ to decide on how best to distribute their $100,000.

Early on, students were given the choice of joining one of four grant-making groups: Education, Environment, International Development, or Policy and Advocacy. Each group had almost a quarter of the funds at their disposal to distribute, and each week they would meet to develop their aims and objectives, plan a call for proposals from organisations seeking funds, and develop criteria for assessing these proposals. Following an initial assessment, they conducted site visits. At every stage, there were opportunities for learning important lessons about responsible and effective philanthropy. For example, how does one determine a priority for giving, even within a specific area, when there is so much need and so many choices available? And how does one handle the power dynamic of relatively inexperienced students making funding decisions that may affect the lives of thousands of beneficiaries? Bruce Sievers and I were on hand to assist the students with these dilemmas and also manage the occasional crisis of confidence. However, our approach was hands-off, guiding students to texts and ideas that could help them reach their own solutions while avoiding imposing our own. As former foundation heads, we were well aware of the numerous pitfalls involved in responsible and ethical grant making. Knowing when and when not to intervene, thus became a major pedagogical challenge. 

Fortunately, this challenge was made easier by our students, whose remarkable progression throughout the term helped them make hard choices even as they grappled with the urge for more time and reflection. 

The students’ conduct throughout the grant-making process removed any doubts I had initially felt about placing relatively large sums of money at their disposal. At times, their insight, maturity and willingness to take risks was nothing short of inspirational. For example, the Policy and Advocacy group chose to tackle gentrification in San Francisco by supporting a radical collective, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which uses cutting-edge technology to facilitate protest against the relentless gentrification caused by the tech boom with its spiralling housing costs. The Environment team chose to fund New Harvest, which is pioneering alternatives to meat production, a major cause of environmental degradation. The sophistication and quality of some decision-making turned the experience into a ‘foundation-school.’ Thus, it was gratifying to see some of my students subsequently applying for, and going on to assume, roles at major American foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur – big names in American philanthropy.

At the same time, these experiences piqued my interest in the development of philanthropy education in Europe. During a one-year study supported by the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy at City University London, I investigated the countries, institutions and disciplines in which philanthropy is taught across the continent. The study revealed a small but growing field, including twenty courses and ten academic centres or chairs dedicated to philanthropy, the majority of which were created since 2000. However, student philanthropy of the type pioneered in the US does not yet exist in Europe, where philanthropy education remains patchy, fragmented and underdeveloped. British philanthropists and universities have yet to show the boldness and ambition required to invest in this area.

That said, I expect more university-based philanthropy education to emerge in 2015, especially in the UK. The pressing need to understand why, whether and how the use of private resources for public purposes can and should be harnessed – especially at a time of public austerity – makes this challenge even more important.

There are also lessons for Jewish philanthropy, which occupies a dominant position within overall British philanthropy. First, philanthropic practice within the Jewish community needs to become more evidence-based in order to use resources as effectively as possible. Second, there are major ethical challenges to confront in relation to Jewish philanthropy to Israel. At a time when the democratic and liberal aspects of Israel are increasingly under pressure, Jewish philanthropy has a special responsibility to maintain space for dissent. Similarly, Jewish philanthropy outside Israel needs to ensure that its investments reduce rather than reinforce the gaps between Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel. Funding should be on the basis of need rather than ethnicity. Above all, those philanthropists who persist in supporting the ongoing settlement enterprise, illegal under international law, need to be challenged and, where appropriate, reported to the UK Charity Commission.

Whatever one’s views on philanthropy – and in our classroom there were many – there is little doubt that this age-old but still mercurial phenomenon needs to be both better studied and practiced. I have been privileged to have done a bit of both in the UK and US, and hope to continue doing so in the coming years.

Charles Keidan is a Philanthropy Practice Research fellow at the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy at City University London. Charles directed the Pears Foundation from 2004-12 and was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Centre for Philanthropy and Civil Society in 2013-14. He blogs on facingphilanthropy.org and tweets @charleskeidan. 

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