Why teach and study philanthropy at UK universities?

This blog is about why we are trying to build the field of philanthropic studies in our Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. Over this holiday period we are recruiting for a new colleague to help us develop and teach new courses on philanthropy – but why?

In the 1850s a wise person wrote:

“The profession of philanthropy, like every other, can be safely and serviceably practiced only by those who have mastered its principles and graduated in its soundest schools. It is as dangerous to practice charity, as to practice physic [medicine] without a diploma. He who should benefit mankind must first qualify himself for the task”.

Yet 160 years later there is minimal university-level provision on philanthropy (as this paper by Charle Keidan sets out), and little clarity on what is needed to qualify people for the task of working in the philanthropy sector, or the task of being philanthropists.

Philanthropy is a complicated topic for university-level teaching because it is both a noun and a verb – it is a thing that exists (like a charitable foundation that has a building, staff, policies and procedures) and it is a thing that people do (like figuring out how to use their resources to improve the world around them). This raises important issues for those of us trying to build the field of philanthropic studies in the UK

Firstly: is the focus on scholarship about philanthropy (history, ethics, concepts etc) or the skills to work in the philanthropy sector/be a philanthropist? At Kent we are focused on the former – our students gain a thorough understanding of the meaning, mission and purpose of philanthropy rather than a ‘license to practice’, though they inevitably gain a lot of insight into the sector as our team includes former practitioners and the Centre is highly engaged with charity leaders, staff, volunteers and donors.

Other disciplines have faced a similar scholarship/skills issue, because philanthropy is not the only thing that people both do and think about: law, politics, music, art, drama, languages, architecture, archaeology, medicine, business – these are all practical professions that benefit from extensive Higher Education provision at undergraduate and postgraduate level. And they are also all subjects of extensive analytical academic enquiry, with their own journals, PhD students, established streams of research funding and all the other paraphernalia that turns a topic into a discipline. So we can learn from their experiences, and be confident that there is room on campus both for those who want to do it and those with a more theoretical bent.

We can also take heart from similar professions that have trodden a similar path in the relatively recent past. For example, until the mid 20th century, social work was a profoundly practical activity – something done, not studied. It didn’t become an academic discipline until 1954 when the Carnegie UK Trust funded the first courses in social work at the LSE because they believed the profession needed a body of core knowledge and trained practitioners. There are now 848 courses on social work being offered by UK universities.

Many other subjects have travelled the same trajectory and become established disciplines in a relatively short period of time. The deputy vice chancellor at my university, Professor Keith Mander has been very supportive of our efforts to build the Centre for Philanthropy by providing initial seed funding and matched funding for donations that we receive. When I recently asked why he took such an interest, he told me that when he started out as a junior lecturer in computer science in the 1970s, older academics questioned the legitimacy of his subject. One said that as computers were just machines, it made as much sense to study lawnmowers! But of course Prof Mander had the last laugh because computer science is now an established academic discipline and UK universities now offer over 2,300 courses in different aspects of computer science.

In my department at the University of Kent, the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Policy, our most popular undergraduate degree is now Criminology. Yet this discipline only got going in the UK in the 1960s, largely as a result of a donation from the Wolfson Foundation to create the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University. Today almost every university in the UK offers criminology courses. When I look at my over-worked Criminology colleagues teaching hundreds of students who are willing to pay £9,000 a year to undertake the scientific study of crime and criminal behaviour, I can’t help asking: wouldn’t similar numbers want to undertake what is essentially its opposite, the scientific study of philanthropy and philanthropic behavior? It seems rather like the distinction between War Studies and Peace Studies – they draw on much of the same literature and ideas, so what’s in a name?

So we have decided to follow our hunch and invest the time and effort in trying to establish the field of philanthropic studies. We believe we have all the ingredients necessary for an academic subject to go from marginal to mainstream:

  1. Demand from students and industry – the modules we currently offer on fundraising and philanthropyvolunteering and the third sector in modern society are very popular, we are turning away good potential PhD students because we haven’t got the capacity to supervise them, and our practitioner colleagues say they struggle to find suitably equipped candidates, especially for fundraising posts (as this report on the fundraising workforce in HEIs notes)
  2. The existence of academics willing to build a field as well as work in it – this of course includes our team at Kent, as well as excellent colleagues at other universities such as Tobias Jung at St AndrewsSiobhan Daly at NorthumbriaAdrian Sargeant at Plymouth and Peter Grant at Cass Business School.
  3. Enlightened funders willing to provide resources to make it happen – we are immensely lucky to have the support of some philanthropic funders, in particular Pears Foundation is generously providing funding for the new 3-year teaching post that we are currently recruiting – information and application are available online here.

We do hope that some excellent candidates will apply, and join us in our exciting endeavour to build a new field in UK higher education.

We are proud of our achievements so far at Kent and excited about what we will achieve when our team expands, but we are also very glad that some other universities are with on this same journey. We know there is no ‘one stop’ solution to providing philanthropy education. Growing a new field, pretty much from scratch, requires multiple providers across the UK to ensure there’s room for diverse interests, approaches and emphases. It would make as little sense to have just one academic department of Social Work in the whole of the UK, or just one Business School, as it would be to have only one functioning centre of philanthropy.

We are glad to work together with others to come to a shared view on what is needed and who is best placed to do what, because we cannot afford to waste time in duplication and unnecessary competition, nor do we want to leave important areas untouched, if we are serious – as I know we all are – about making philanthropy education a perfectly normal part of higher education provision in the UK.

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