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By Lindsey Athanasiou • September 27, 2018

Philanthropy's Two Worlds

I had the honor of attending and presenting at this year’s Science of Philanthropy Initiative Conference, hosted by the University of Chicago and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Never heard of the Conference or the Philanthropy School? You’re not alone. I hadn’t either, until a fundraiser friend recommended it. Typically no more than 100 attendees, it’s a small event designed to present findings from those performing academic research in the field of philanthropy.

If you had to re-read the last sentence, I reiterate, you’re not alone!

Fundraisers, known as practitioners to those who study it, are often surprised to learn that their job function is also a course of study. I was surprised to hear that several institutions issue Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even PhDs in philanthropic studies. Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, which houses the Lilly School, has been around for more than 30 years and has over trained over 40,000 people. Currently, there are 200 students enrolled in a degree-granting program at Lilly.

Each year, 50+ academics, from Lilly and beyond, come together to share what they’re learning about philanthropy. I sat in on a session, presented by Ragan Petrie of Texas A&M University, about a study performed to understand the effects of tiered matches versus a standard 1:1 match during a giving day. As a former annual giving fundraiser, I was foaming at the mouth at the data and learnings. I was blown away by how useful this and much more of the research I absorbed that day would have been to me in my prior life. It IS immeasurably useful to fundraisers today.

So, I asked myself, why aren’t there more fundraisers here?

In chatting with Lilly faculty and conference organizers, the chasm between academics and practitioners became clear. While much of the published research is available to the public, the issue seems to be that fundraisers don’t know it’s out there. When I was planning Babson College’s first ever giving day, did it occur to me to do a LexusNexus search for published research on donor matches? Of course not! Instead, I turned to other practitioners who had experience. Not a wrong approach, but an insular one. If I had known what other fantastic, scientific resources were out there, I would have used them and benefited.

My takeaway from this enlightening experience is that there are two worlds when it comes to philanthropy: academia and practitioners. It’s time they shake hands and get to know each other, for the betterment of the field and the world.

Interested to learn more about the role of AI in fundraising? See how early adopters, like Jim Dicker at University of Delaware, are using the technology to redefine success.

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