Studying Philanthropy for Its Own Sake

I have lamented, probably all too often on this blog in recent years, the degree to which MBA programs are becoming the centers of discussions on philanthropy, and not always in a good way (see, for example, here, here, and here).

On the one hand, the fact that business schools are seeking to interest their students in philanthropy is a very good thing. When I began the MBA program at Harvard Business School in the late 1990s, my classmates, upon hearing that I had worked primarily in the nonprofit sector (in higher education administration), often reacted with indifference, befuddlement, or some mix of the two—I might just as well have said I was a socialist.

Today, I think I would be greeted somewhat differently, as business schools across the U.S. and abroad have added classes on “social enterprise” (which, admittedly, existed at HBS when I was there but seemed to be populated by as many Kennedy School of Government cross-registrants as actual MBA students). The result, I would hope, is MBA graduates with more knowledge of nonprofits and philanthropy, and maybe even an ambition to work in the nonprofit sector. That’s good, at least if they really are knowledgeable.

And that’s where I worry. I am concerned that much of what is taught about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector at even leading business schools is often shallow—lacking in an understanding of the history of the sector, the value of its role as distinct from business and government, and the unique challenge of working on the toughest problems our society faces. Too often, from what I have seen, the approach to philanthropy in MBA programs comes in the form of a kind of imposition of “market solutions” that denies the reality that nonprofits and philanthropy work to address the problems that have defied markets (if business could easily solve them, they’d be solved) and, in many cases, are a result of market failure.

I think we need more educational initiatives (whether housed in business schools or other academic centers) that see philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as worth studying in their own right: not with some thinly or not-so-thinly veiled agenda to make them more “like business,” whatever that even means, but with a perspective about their unique importance in our society and, therefore, the importance of their effectiveness.

So, within that context, I want to take a moment to appreciate the efforts of Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, founder and Chair of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS), founder of SV2, and author of Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Your World. As I said last fall at an event at PACS featuring Paul Brest discussing his Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “A Decade of Outcome-Oriented Philanthropy,” PACS is noteworthy for its existence as an entity bringing together scholars across disciplines—as well as leading practitioners—to focus on philanthropy. Laura has been at it for well over a decade.

She is a lecturer at the business school and teaches a class there, but she has dedicated herself to developing curricula and course material that are focused on understanding philanthropy as a distinctly challenging—and distinctly important—endeavor. Last month, Laura announced that she is making the rich set of course materials from her teaching available through Giving 2.0 ProjectU, “a free, open-source educational initiative to advance the academic, individual and institutional fields of philanthropy.”

Among the resources that are now available to any faculty member or academic institution that wishes to teach about philanthropy are:

  • “26 Stanford Graduate School of Business case studies on high-impact foundations, philanthropists and best practices” and
  • “41 case teaching resources (21 GSB case teaching notes and 20 Giving 2.0 case activity guides) with discussion questions, activities, and frameworks to advance students’ critical thinking.”

I cannot personally vouch for all the course materials, but from what I know and from what I hear from those in a better position to know, they are very strong.

So making them broadly available in this way strikes me as a big deal, and a real service. As Brest, who served as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and is now faculty co-director of PACS, wrote in a blog post shortly after the announcement, this is a “tremendous gift to the increasing number of teachers and students of philanthropy.”

I hope these resources are widely used—and that more and more students are able to engage with materials that help them to understand and appreciate the role that nonprofits and foundations play in this country. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have plenty of critical things to say about nonprofits and foundations—as well as about business and government. But I also believe that philanthropy has a unique and important role in our society. As the historian Olivier Zunz of the University of Virginia describes it in an important book I reviewed here last year,

“From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, and from ordinary people who purchased Christmas seals to fight tuberculosis to those who wear pink ribbons to battle breast cancer, the nation has come to view philanthropy as both a quintessential part of being American and another means of achieving major objectives …. Together they have forged a philanthropic sector that donors, beneficiaries, and the state recognize as a critical source of ideas as well as funding.”

I only wish more students could really study nonprofits and foundations closely, to deeply understand their role, their potential, and the importance of their effectiveness.

Now, thanks to the Giving 2.0 ProjectU initiative, they will have more opportunities to do so.


Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

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