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ERNOP 2019: Information overload?

In the heat of the Swiss sun, the European Research Network on Philanthropy gathered at the University of Basel to hear the latest analyses of philanthropy. The network comprises over 250 members from 25 countries, and its conference attracted academics and practitioners alike, eager to hear best practice and lessons from across the continent and beyond.

It would be going over well-trodden ground to suggest that there is a disconnect between academic research and charity practice. In fact, the very morning of ERNOP 2019, two new papers were published to that effect, the latest instalment of work by Charity Futures and Giving Evidence to bridge that gap, commenting on the mismatch in priorities for each party.

It might be said that the disconnect between academia and practice relates to the wider trend across society of declining trust in institutions, which we see manifest in many ways. From climate change deniers to the false claims against childhood vaccinations, ”the expert” no longer automatically (or even routinely) commands credibility.  

So, it is against this fractious backdrop that I will try to make links between lessons from ERNOP 2019 and the world of foundation practice.

The conference’s keynote speech was from Rob Reich, sharing ideas from his book Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. This drew the attention of academics and practitioners alike, not least because it forms part of a larger wave of philanthropy critics making intelligent, credible and reasoned critiques.

As well as his many criticisms of philanthropy, his argument in favour of ‘big philanthropy’ may be most relevant to practitioners – that foundations act as mechanism for “innovation and experimentation”. Foundations enjoy long time horizons, unbound by political and market cycles. Is there more that foundation practitioners could be doing to embed this thinking across the grant-making cycle, from assessing applications, to monitoring and reporting, to measuring impact? Reich suggested that burdening grantees with metrics and reports undermines what philanthropy is uniquely good for; rather than get bogged down in the detail, shouldn’t the role of foundations be to think in 20-, 30- or 50-year time horizons?

For those in family foundations, a presentation of research mapping giving patterns in families may be useful. Wales Institute of Social Research and Design (WISERD) at Cardiff University is examining how family values and behaviours are passed on and how tendencies towards giving, volunteering and civic action are developed. What uses might this have for family boards planning priorities for the future and bringing in future generations?

And research on the benefits of volunteering may have implications for board recruitment, or for foundations funding work reliant on volunteers. Analysis of how volunteering impacts health and life satisfaction from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam suggests that while there is a causal link between volunteering and health status, there is no such link between volunteering and life satisfaction. What does this mean for how we attract, recruit and retain volunteers?

However, despite the variety of interesting contributions, I was left feeling that there may be a good reason to bemoan the lingering feeling of disconnect between academia and practitioners. While I learned a lot at ERNOP 2019, it was like visiting an alternative world, where the topics were familiar but not the language, with little on offer by way of translation.

It’s no wonder practitioners might be overloaded by – or, conversely, oblivious to – all this information. There are barriers to engagement such as time, cost, accessibility, language, and relevance, to name a few. And that’s just academic research on dimensions of philanthropy. Practitioners also face a long reading list on governance, impact measurement, subject-specific issues, grants data, and much more. For the busy foundation practitioner, where to start?

A good place is with organisations who make it their business to bridge the divide, to offer practical solutions based on sound theory, but whose outputs are practice-ready. It’s great to see organisations like Institute of Voluntary Action Research and 360Giving actively taking their research, datasets and tools out to practitioners; 360Giving’s new strategy explicitly aims to “increase data literacy” and “grow data use”, which will help many more grant-makers engage with the data they already hold and put it to good use.

Making more research and data more accessible to more practitioners can only lead to more effective philanthropy. How can we do more of that?

Emma Hutchins
Policy & Communications Manager, ACF

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