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On Doing Good

Q&A with the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

L.A. Cicero

GIVE-AND-TAKE: Kopell and the center's faculty co-directors Meyerson and Woody Powell, education professor, try to connect philanthropic research with practice.

You can hardly turn on a television or switch on your computer without seeing images of giving. Bill Gates spends a fortune immunizing children in Africa. Oprah sprinkles millions through her “Angel Network.” Hollywood's biggest stars make the obligatory stop in New Orleans to help rebuild the storm-torn city.

But how do charitable donations make change happen? What does philanthropy mean? The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, started in 2006, brings together faculty from myriad disciplines—sociology, education, communication, anthropology, political science, psychology, business, medicine—to delve into questions like these. Malka Kopell, '78, managing director of the center, spoke with Stanford about the group, its work and philanthropy in the 21st century.

What's behind the establishment of the center?
Certainly this is a time when philanthropy is in the news, but research on the role of philanthropy in solving problems is relatively thin. Len Ortolano, at the time faculty director of the Haas Center, and Laura Arrillaga, '92, MBA '97, MA '98, MA '99, [Business School lecturer and philanthropist] simultaneously came up with the idea of seeding something at Stanford that does more work in this area, to better understand it but also to encourage the next generation of scholars. How is philanthropy different today than in the time of the Rockefellers and Carnegies?

We are looking at an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of wealth, so more dollars have a greater potential to make an impact. Added to that, depending on how you look at it, is the smaller role of government, and that offers an opportunity to take up where the public sector has been. There are some different levels [of philanthropy] and perhaps fewer established foundations, so philanthropy is—I would not say democratized, but there may be opportunities for more people to do it. Philanthropy is still a group of people expressing what they have a desire to do. That has always been the case.

What's new in the world of giving?
There are some more models on the horizon, like google.org. They have not incorporated as a foundation. Their organization is not tax-exempt. That gives them more flexibility, because they don't have to adhere to the requirements that getting a tax break would impose on them. Venture philanthropy follows on the venture capital model, seeding new nonprofits the same way venture capitalists seed new businesses. There is also a lot of participation of funders in the organizations themselves.

The other thing happening is the Gates Foundation. Just the dollar amount, the resources that that foundation can employ, is unprecedented and something worth looking at. Because it can do a lot, it is raising a lot of questions about what it should do and should it be doing it better. The actions of large foundations like that are rife for analysis.

What specific projects are your scholars working on?
One of our faculty directors, associate professor of education Debra Meyerson, is doing research on charter schools, which have a lot of nonprofit dollars going to them. She is looking particularly at charter schools scaling up, doing more, doing better, doing bigger.

An important part of our mission is trying to provide a space for philosophy and practice to come together—not only so that the research can inform the field but also so [people in] the field can raise questions. Where they are struggling with issues, we can take a look. It's hard to figure out what that space looks like. The way that the academy naturally works is that research projects are developed, research comes out, and it may or may not be useful in the field. The same is true the other way: questions that are useful in the field might not be asked here.

Trying to create the space for these conversations is hard. We are trying to figure out the best way to do that and still respect the way researchers ask basic questions. For many of those questions it is hard to find out what the effect will be in the field, but if they aren't being asked, we will never have a way to find out. We don't want to create a separate field [of study]. We want to embed these questions and this study in the existing fields, so that this research becomes sustainable, in order to ask the deep questions.

What has surprised you in coming to work in this area?
That the giving that comes through foundations is very, very small. Individual donations are the greatest source of public giving.

What else should we know about what you are doing?
We are a center under the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and we are also part of the Haas Center [for Public Service]. Having both of those parents has been really wonderful for us; they offer us different things. The institute focuses on interdisciplinary work, which is important for us and provides a portal. Then, being at the Haas Center helps us connect with students and the world of practice. The Haas Center offers service fellowships in philanthropy at nonprofit organizations, and that is a complement to our research fellowships. Our interest is not only in promoting and supporting more research, but also to train students who may be interested not in doing research, but in working in the field.

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