What is philanthropy? And why does it need defending?

To mark the publication of her new book, In Defence of Philanthropy, we caught up with Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent…

Congratulations on your new book In Defence of Philanthropy (published today by Agenda Publishing!) For anyone who’s not sure, is it possible to define what philanthropy is?

Thanks! Philanthropy is a tricky word to pronounce and even trickier to define – I often joke that my parents think I study stamp collecting – but it broadly means the practice of private, voluntary efforts to help unknown others and to benefit wider society. The roots of the word are simple enough: ‘philo‘ means ‘love of’ and ‘anthropos’ means ‘humankind’, but there’s nothing straightforward about how it is understood, practiced, interpreted and discussed, which is why it’s well worth studying.

Can anyone be a philanthropist or do you have to have accumulated a certain amount of wealth?

Anyone can be a philanthropist because everyone has the capacity to ‘love humankind’. But at the moment that word is usually only applied to a tiny handful of very rich, well-known people – usually white American men, and that’s not right. I’d like to reclaim the word ‘philanthropy’ so that it’s applied to everyone who voluntarily gives their money, time, contacts and expertise to promote the common good

Tell us about the focus of your book In Defence of Philanthropy – why did you feel Philanthropy needed defending?!

For some years I’ve watched with frustration as the reputation of philanthropy has become increasingly attacked from many sides. This isn’t new – people have always worried about the intentions and impact of donors, especially the biggest givers – but there were so many voices promoting the view that private generosity is a scam to mask bad behaviour or to secure personal advantages, that I felt it was time to restore some balance. I’m obviously not suggesting that nothing ever goes wrong in the process and practice of philanthropy, or that it can’t be improved. Of course it can, and many donors are striving to become more thoughtful and effective givers. But there’s a logical flaw in leaping from noting the existence of human fallibility in private giving to presenting philanthropy as inherently problematic.

You co-founded the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent in 2008 and spent a decade working in a variety of fundraising, research and charity management roles before that. How has philanthropy changed over that time?

Having worked in, and studied, philanthropy for many years, I know how much good can be done by private, voluntary initiatives. I’ve also witnessed – and been part of – many efforts to improve the understanding and practice of philanthropy. It’s easy to be cynical about private giving but we need to remember that it’s funded life-saving interventions such as vaccinating millions of children in countries that lack robust public health systems, it also supports life-enhancing work in the arts, sport, and animal welfare, as well as funding campaigns that advance equalities and social progress such as women’s rights and same-sex marriage. These successes almost always involve contributions from a range of donors (big and small), as well as collaboration with governments and the private sector. It’s hard to square the recent emergence of hyper-criticism of philanthropy with these collaborative successes, and with the reality of donors being spurred by motives such as gratitude, compassion, frustration at political inaction, and a basic belief that if you’re aware of needs and you’re in a position to help, then that’s the right thing to do.

From where I’m standing there’s a curious two-pronged trajectory: more and more criticism of philanthropy, alongside ever-increasing efforts to improve philanthropy. We need to get these two sides to become aware of, and better understand, each other.

Can you tell us about your research interests in philanthropy?

My research interests are focused on understanding the whole eco-system of philanthropy, which includes donors, fundraisers, and philanthropy advisers. My last book was on The New Fundraisers: who organises generosity in contemporary society, and my next book, with Emma Beeston, is on the principles and practice of advising donors. My excellent colleagues at Kent are also doing great research and writing books on topics such as how children learn how to give, fundraising strategy, and legacy giving. We make as much of our work freely available on the publications page of our website.

You launched a Master’s degree programme in Philanthropic Studies at Kent in 2016 – how does your research expertise – and the research expertise of the Centre for Philanthropy more broadly – feed into this course?

The MA is the central way that we fulfil our goal of bridging academia and practice – it’s the course that I wish had existed when I was working as a fundraiser and charity manager. We ensure that our students become aware of the latest research, insights and debates, so that they can become more informed and reflective practitioners. All the tutors on the Master’s programme have extensive professional experience, as well as scholarly expertise – we also know what it’s like to study whilst needing to pay the mortgage, raise kids, and fulfil many other commitments, so we’re a very empathic and supportive tutor team. Our courses cover the fundamentals of philanthropy, fundraising, volunteering, advising donors, global philanthropy and ends with a guided independent research project which relates to our students’ workplace or personal interests. The feedback we get from graduating students is so positive that it often chokes me up! I love working on this programme and am always happy to chat to people considering applying.

Who’s most likely to benefit from studying an MA in Philanthropic Studies – what kind of career pathways can it lead to (or enhance)?

Most of our students are professionals who’ve been working in the charity/nonprofit/philanthropy sector for a few years. They’re often in fundraising, grant-making or management roles, or they aspire to do that kind of work. The course is taught online and part-time over two years so that people can maintain their professional and personal commitments whilst achieving a postgraduate degree. If you’re a professional who likes to think and read about what you’re doing and why, and want to be part of a community of fellow thoughtful practitioners who can provide mutual support for the rest of your career, or if you harbour hopes of completing a PhD one day, then this course is for you.

We also offer a free online course in How to Fundraise, and are developing a Fundraiser apprenticeship – anyone who wants to know more is welcome to get in touch, my contact details are online here.

And finally, what’s the future for philanthropy – how do you see it evolving? Are we always going to need it?

In a word: Yes! There will always be things that the State and the Market don’t do, or don’t do well, or don’t do yet, so we need to protect and nourish this third sector, the philanthropic space, where we can go beyond our roles as voters and consumers to extend and enhance the quality of life for unknown others and for future generations.

Dr Beth Breeze is Director of the Centre for Philanthropy and Reader in Social Policy at Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR). She began her career as a fundraiser for a youth homelessness charity, and spent a decade working in a variety of fundraising, research and charity management roles, including as deputy director at the Institute for Philanthropy.

Leave a Reply