Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


The Forum

Over the past fifteen years, scholarship on philanthropic behavior and nonprofit organizations has grown dramatically. The December 1999 issue of Research & Creative Activity exposes some of best current research on this topic and indicates the kind of leaven the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy has provided for this area of study. Several reflections came to mind as I read the issue.

The first is that researchers are increasingly recognizing the importance of transcending dichotomous thinking about philanthropic motivations. Researchers are converging around the consensus that looking for, finding, and even calling for an ideal motivation for altruism is neither theoretically nor empirically founded. Altruism in the sense of pure selflessness does not exist and, in my view, should not even be advocated when discussing what is better described as the social relations of care. As one realm of care, philanthropy is a mode ofengagement of self, not the absence of self. An appreciation of the spiritual and social-psychological unity of love of neighbor and love of self encourages us to search out the array of motivations concerning the identification, extension, and engagement of a self. This means, for instance, that we might be more cautious about depreciating the contributions that individuals make to the institutions from which they receive services (such as churches, hospitals, and schools) as somehow selfish. Instead, such forms of what I call consumption philanthropy need to be seen as prototypes of the kind of self-engagement and identification that charities with broader horizons need to generate to gain greater support.

A second reflection is that philanthropy is such a hot-button topic that research has a special role in avoiding, undercutting, and calling into question the ideologies from across the political spectrum that tarnish the meaning and practice of the third sector. Like other subjects in which heartfelt aspirations, controversies, and social implications come to the fore, even research analysts can sometimes end up telling us more about their ideological predilections than about the topics they are discussing. We need a renewed devotion to the craft of scientia (skillfully obtained knowledge), as described by Max Weber in his essay “Science as a Vocation” and as evinced by nearly all of the researchers highlighted in December’s RCA. Such an approach would do much to press the field of nonprofit research beyond tired conventions and open it to more trustworthy horizons of discovery, communication, and application of knowledge.

My final reflection concerns the voluntary nature of philanthropy. We are all familiar with the range of material incentives and behavioral requirements surrounding income- and estate-tax incentives for charitable giving, stipend volunteers, service-learning course credit, and community service requirements for school children. We are also familiar with the tendency of well-meaning advocates to render moral judgments about the amounts, intentions, or focuses of other people’s voluntary efforts. Without necessarily calling for the elimination of any particular incentives or requirements, I suggest that those of us who take research on philanthropy seriously might revisit the question of the voluntary nature of the voluntary sector. For instance, we might inquire whether there is in fact some positive potential for the quantity and quality of philanthropy if the estate-tax were repealed. More generally, the most important unspoken questions in philanthropy may be what new horizons would researchers be pressed to study and what new strategies would philanthropic advocates bepressed to devise if the voluntary impulse of the voluntary sector were more fully unleashed?

Paul G. Schervish
Professor of Sociology
Director of the Social Welfare
Research Institute
Boston College
(During the1999-2000 academic year, Schervish was a Distinguished Visiting Professor by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.)

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