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Does a career in philanthropy constitute a profession? Does it need to? And if so, by what measurements and standards?
These questions were tackled by a panel at the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal last Thursday. Panelists Karl Stauber, Susan Ditkoff, Teri Behrens and Joseph Palus debated Stauber’s most recent essay, “Is Philanthropy a Profession? Should it Be?” which appeared in The Foundation Review. The panel focused on the role of philanthropy in the professional industry and how to best measure the field.
In his essay, Stauber, CEO of The Danville Regional Foundation, states:
Philanthropy is not a profession, and it should not become one. We should be rigorous. We should learn from our work. We should help our partners and be helped by them. But a wisdom-focused approach may produce better results than a science-focused one.
He recommends operating with vigor, intelligence, passion, compassion and humility while avoiding the training-intensive, exclusionary approach of professional communities, like medicine or law. An academic approach has its place in those professions, but in a field where there’s often no right answer and peoples’ faith in you is contingent on doing a good job, not a degree, Stauber thinks the philanthropic community can only lose by raising barriers to participation and increasing obscurity.
Joe Palus, a PhD candidate in Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, predictably has a different perspective on academic studies of philanthropy. Academics might bring new perspectives to the field thanks to a higher level view of philanthropy, allowing them to see patterns practitioners might understandably miss. A strong academic community could help compile and analyze the wisdom and experiences of a field of practitioners and a variety of different perspectives. Palus did seem to agree that a scientific approach need not be the only approach or an advanced degree in philanthropic studies necessary for every practitioner in the field. The role of a strong academic community cannot be overlooked, however, and can better allow us to create, cultivate and develop wisdom.
An interesting supporting point came from Teri Behrens, Editor-in-Chief of The Foundation Review, who suggested that philanthropists are constantly developing factors, skills and strategies to engage with communities. Beherens’ publication is a new and powerful tool, allowing these findings to be shared and utilized nationwide. All philanthropists have a responsibility to share these teachings with everyone, not just the elite. Philanthropists must also be sure to address different levels of need in terms of certainty and agreement with necessary action. A peer-reviewed journal like The Foundation Review will allow the community to mature and help build trust with grantees by increasing transparency.
Susan Wolf Ditkoff, of The Bridgespan Group, added the insight that new philanthropists/donors often face a steep learning curve when they choose to donate. Developing a body of literature to introduce people to the theory, practices and current debates in the sector may in fact lower the barriers to participation in the field. Making the best practices and findings known and accessible will help make real changes on the ground - she talked about an unnamed philanthropist who wanted to provide disaster relief for Haiti, but first wanted to conduct extensive research on the reliability of certain organizations, like the Red Cross. Had they known what any practitioner would have - that a background check would waste precious days or weeks, delaying disaster relief or exactly how well the Red Cross runs - then more people might have been helped. Practitioners need to be able to share their wisdom with philanthropists at the very least.
Overall, the panel felt that it was appropriate for practitioners within the philanthropic sector to adopt professional practices that encouraged consistency and the sharing of information. These practitioners should also lower the barriers of entry to the field but should shun the exclusionary practices and never expect trust the way other professional communities might. The panel ended with a conclusion that perhaps we need to get better at being able to articulate just what philanthropists do. There are multiple definitions for what philanthropy is and does, but all the panelists agreed that philanthropy requires loyalty - to itself and to the people it serves, especially in a time of fundamental distrust.
Guest blogger Andrea Lum is an intern at the Case Foundation. Thanks to fellow intern Nikolai Steiglitz for his input with this post.