Monday, July 30, 2012

Philanthropic Studies: The Leaven in the Loaf

Robert L. Payton, 1926 – 2011
A few weeks back, there was big news from IUPUI that the nationally known Center on Philanthropy, pending approval from Indiana Commission for Higher Education, is to become its own school of philanthropic studies. The idea is that the new school will raise the bar
on excellence in philanthropic studies, helping to prepare people professionally for careers in the philanthropic world by offering a variety of degrees at undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. This is news because currently no school in the nation offers a school specifically dedicated to the study of philanthropy. If all goes as planned and IUPUI receives the approval it needs from the state, classes could begin in the 2013-14 academic year.

True, there is a big demand for trained and experienced people in the non-profit world, and that sector is experiencing good growth, even in our slowly recovering economy. And voluntary giving and action and philanthropy in general are worthy of academic consideration. I wonder, however, if this new school is really the right approach for the times in which we live.

When Bob Payton became the first director of the Center on Philanthropy, he was careful to articulate the philosophy that his goal was in fact to get teachers and professors throughout the university to include philanthropy in the subject matter they were teaching, whether that was law, medicine, sociology, or another discipline. The subject matter could be almost anything, but included in them all—in the form or remarks or sections of study—would be ideas about the ways philanthropy could benefit and complement their field. For example, medical students could learn about writing grant proposals for the National institutes of Health, and students in the social sciences could learn about ways they could fund their research or get new programs off the ground.

In the academic world, all too often, we silo everything and limit the creative conversations we could be having. Instead of allowing inspiration to germinate where it will and benefit all disciplines, we take the approach, “We won’t talk about that because that topic is in their area. We focus on this topic.” If by creating this new school we serve in effect to “silo” the rich potential of the Center on Philanthropy, I think other disciplines will miss out on learning that could be instrumental in furthering students’ careers.  It may be possible for this new school to continue to plant the philanthropic spirit in other disciplines, but I think it’s less likely to happen if all the philanthropists have their own program.

Bob Payton was the first tenured professor in philanthropic studies in the world, and he had a vision for the Center on Philanthropy, one I share and feel is worth upholding. What Bob Payton wanted was to grow and spread the “philanthropic spirit,” or the “habit of the heart,” across disciplines. He wanted to elevate the professional excellence in philanthropy and develop an expertise without segregating the field. I hope as plans continue to move forward for the new school of philanthropic studies at IUPUI, program planners will consider the solid foundation the Center already has and protect, preserve, and grow Bob’s original vision. It’s one that will continue to benefit not only the school of philanthropy alone but all other disciplines it touches.

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