Does philanthropy need to go back to school?

By Benedict Rickey 27 June 2012

A school of philanthropy—at first glance it looks like an oxymoron. Surely you can’t learn how to be philanthropic—it’s an attitude, an act of generosity, not a profession. In practice, philanthropy has reached a scale and ambition that makes a school of philanthropy a logical step. The world of philanthropy needs trained professionals to work for philanthropists and foundations. It also needs scholars to study the practices and trends in the nonprofit world.

Training nonprofit professionals and academic study of philanthropy will be the dual focus of Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy, announced last week. Assuming it raises a further $30 million the school will open its doors in July 2013, making it the first in the US. Though it builds on the University’s existing programmes including bachelors and masters degrees, it will be breaking new ground.

This exciting development got me thinking: what about the UK? Are we ready for a school of philanthropy? There is no doubt that philanthropy in the US is bigger and, in many ways, more professional, than in the UK. However, huge strides have been made on this side of the pond to improve training and knowledge around philanthropy, on everything from strategy, to targeting beneficiaries, selecting charities and evaluating impact.

Take the Institute for Philanthropy. It now offers a range of ways to develop the skills of philanthropists and philanthropy professionals, from their 3-week philanthropy workshops to their Next Generation Programme, targeted at the younger generation of wealthy families.

NPC has been training philanthropists and their advisors for over a decade. Our start-up workshops help new philanthropists to take their first steps, answering questions like how to focus your giving, how to involve your family and friends, and whether you need your own foundation. Our selecting great charities training is about equipping people with the skills to choose between thousands of charities tackling the issue close to their hearts. Our first session proved very successful, and we’re putting on another one in September.

So there are more and more opportunities for philanthropy professionals to learn about effective practice here in the UK. But this is all along way from a School of Philanthropy. Is the UK ready for such an institution? Some would argue that it is needed to promote excellence in philanthropy in the UK. Others would counter that we are culturally not ready, that we should start by becoming more at ease with the word philanthropy before we stick it on a new institute. Above all, they would argue that we need to bring the public’s image of philanthropy into the 21st Century. Today, it is often a professional practice with ambitious social goals, but many still see it as amateurish cheque-writing.

Wherever you stand on this debate, there is no doubt that there is space for more development for philanthropy professionals in the UK. We’re probably not ready for a £100 million School of Philanthropy yet, but something more modest—perhaps a diploma in philanthropy, say—is worth thinking about.

Sign up to NPC’s Selecting great charities training here.