The Future of Philanthropy Research


Magazine article

For about 30 years, philanthropy has emerged as a dynamic field of academic inquiry, in most if not all social sciences. Before that, philosophers and historians were arguably the only scholars to work on this fascinating and complex phenomenon. The surge of interest in the 1980s came from the USA, unsurprisingly, as several think tanks, research centers, and academic programs were created at the time to study – and to promote – this cornerstone of the American civilization.

The good news is that we now have deep insights on key aspects of philanthropy. Economists were able to calculate the “crowding-in” and “crowding-out” relations between philanthropy and government support for charities, as well as the effects of tax policy on giving figures.  Likewise, thanks to psychologists there is a fairly comprehensive typology of donor motivations, from altruism to emotional benefits and reputation matters. Historians vividly documented the rise of philanthropy alongside capitalism and the modern State in the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, this precious knowledge remains very specialised and a clear picture of what we know is still missing. Indeed, scholars in philosophy, sociology, economics, law or business have distinct interests and methods. Their works are published in different journals, seldom quote each other and rarely build new theories across disciplinary boundaries. They may not even share the same basic definition since “philanthropy” is a multifaceted concept whose meaning has evolved a lot through time. Besides, most studies in peer-reviewed journals come from Anglo-Saxon countries, often discounting the influence of cultural and institutional contexts on philanthropic patterns.

These challenges should not discourage researchers, to the contrary uncertainty and dispersion are common in young and interdisciplinary fields of inquiry. Progress is happening as a growing number of research centers, both within and outside the USA, contribute to expanding research towards new territories. In Europe, for example, about 100 scholars from more than 20 countries collaborate through the European Research Network on Philanthropy (ERNOP), created in 2008. The same trend is possibly underway in Asia.

There are of course many avenues for future research on philanthropy. Here we only suggest three key priorities moving forward. First, we need to review the entire body of literature across disciplines in order to identify agreed-upon findings as well as remaining gaps. When a field of inquiry reaches a certain degree of maturity, reviewing what has been studied about it becomes necessary. Literature reviews are long and frustrating to carry out, but they are often extremely helpful for scholars working on the same topic from several perspectives. They allow us to connect previously separate streams of work, to understand rival concepts and key stakes, and to develop new theories.

Second, we must work towards greater diversity, both in terms of research questions and methods. Countless studies in economics and sociology were designed around the drivers of philanthropy. “Why do some people give and others do not?” “What are the determinants of giving?” The widespread answer to these intriguing questions is to conduct simple or multiple linear regressions so as to test the effect of one or more independent variables (age, gender, marital status, income, religious affiliation, etc.) on giving choice and giving amounts. While they are rigorous and informative, these studies rely on the same techniques and often the same aggregated data. To analyse philanthropy we need more varied methods, observational and experimental, quantitative and qualitative. Many research questions call for other methods than regression analyses. For instance, to understand the decision-making process in foundation boards, we need ethnographic methods and in-depth case studies.

Third, as advocated by ERNOP and others, more cross-national comparative studies are needed if we are to analyse philanthropy on a global scale. The overwhelming majority of top tier scholarly works on philanthropy are grounded in the USA or the UK, whether we look at author affiliations or data location. There is much to learn and to celebrate from this remarkable collection. Yet philanthropy is a phenomenon rooted in most religions and traditions around the world, and we lack robust knowledge on the way it is conceived and practiced in many contexts: post-communist Europe, developing countries, diasporas... Better, more open and comparable data is absolutely critical in this regard. In many regions of the world, there are still very few reliable statistics on giving. Provided funding concentrates on making such data available, new and captivating research will flourish.

This article is tagged under:

  • Understanding philanthropy