It's a poor excuse for a celebrity these days who doesn't have a cause for which he's willing to tramp through deserts, meet with refugees or hug patients with tropical diseases. It's a rare shortstop who doesn't give back to the community in the off-season, a rare young multimillionaire who doesn't devote at least part of her wealth to establishing a nonprofit guaranteed to solve a pressing social problem.
Philanthropy is not what it used to be. Today what the New York Times recently called the"celebrity-philanthropy complex" is hot. In the United States, there is more wealth than ever before, and it's not inherited wealth. Many of the newly rich are young people who are pretty sure they know how to fix the world. They get glossy spreads in Fortune, cover stories in the New York Times Magazine, websites and blogs. Giving is both sexy and strategic, and philanthropists are called"smart," not just"good." It's what some people call philanthrocapitalism, what Stanford's Bruce Sievers calls venture philanthropy.
A few years ago, Leonard Ortolano, then director of the Haas Center for Public Service, took steps to ensure that recipients of the Haas summer fellowships with philanthropic organizations linked their practice with academic coursework on the subject. At around the same time, Laura Arrillaga, one of the Haas Center's chief donors and an instructor at the Graduate School of Business, where she teaches courses on philanthropy, mentioned to Ortolano that she'd like to see a more deliberate program for undergraduates around philanthropy.
"She really was the one who lit the fuse," Ortolano remembered."She played a crucial role in getting it started."
"It" was the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS).
Gradually a vision started to gel; the center would be both a place for graduate students to do basic research and a place where research could be linked to practice. Faculty would support research; donors would support practice. Ortolano called a meeting.
"So I explained the vision and I said, ‘I already have two jobs,'" said Ortolano, also the UPS Foundation Professor of Civil Engineering in Urban and Regional Planning. In response, two people raised their hands to volunteer to lead the new center. Both are from the School of Education, with courtesy appointments elsewhere: Walter"Woody" Powell and Debra Meyerson.
"At that point I figured we had a base of faculty support," Ortolano said."Haas was the incubator and it provided the center with neutral territory. If it wasn't for Haas, this thing wouldn't have gotten started."
It was perfectly logical that Powell would raise his hand, he said recently, since he has spent 25 years studying the nonprofit world. For Meyerson, though, the gesture was a bit more risky.
"This was a new interest," she said."I'm a hybrid, both ideologically and in terms of the sectors I study," with degrees in management and organizational behavior."I'm interested in nonprofits and social change, and I wanted to take my work in that direction, but I didn't know where it was going to take me. It was an impulsive commitment."
Not much was known about how philanthropy works, said Malka Kopell, the center's managing director. How does it solve problems? What new problems does it create? What does it say about the public sector that private money is now so essential? How has civil society developed over the past century? What happened to old-fashioned charity? The scholarship and literature on these and other problems, she said, is thin.
Other universities across the country have similar centers. The most prominent of these is at Indiana, which offers graduate degrees and is known for its massive quantitative research capability. Most other philanthropy centers are housed at policy schools; that is the case at Duke, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and Texas.
But Stanford's center is different, said Kopell, who has long experience in public policy and community relations. It is not housed in any particular school but rather at the Haas Center, and it is a program of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. It is meant to be a place where people from many fields and disciplines can gather and then take their new knowledge back to their departments. It is a place to conduct basic research.
Stan Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, was a speaker at the PACS seminar series in January, and he later blogged about his visit on the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"The establishment of the Stanford Center highlights the importance of convincing bright young scholars … that the field is one that can sustain first-rate scholarship," he wrote.
The ‘third sector'
Among the topics floating through the PACS meeting rooms: the role of nonprofits in the fight against AIDS; the degree to which philanthropic foundations are altering the country's education agenda; the impact of the Internet on donations; and the degree to which charitable tax deductions actually increase inequality.
An astonishing number of Stanford students appear to establish their own nonprofit as soon as they graduate. When she graduated from Stanford, Kopell said, students thought that working for the government was the way to change the world. Today it is neither government nor established businesses that lure them; rather, they strike out on their own in what statesman and Stanford educator John Gardner famously called the"third sector," the area that intersects with both the state and the market but which aims to use private money for the public good.
"The ‘and' in our name [philanthropy and civil society] is a bit misleading, because philanthropy clearly is a subset of civil society," Kopell said."The point of the center is to study how these sectors overlap and interact, both in theoretical and in practical terms."
The center's leaders define civil society as activities and arenas that pertain to neither the state nor the market, though they are quick to point out that no human activity can be considered as entirely separate from either. The term was originally used by Hegel to describe forms of civic interaction that arose after the decline of feudalism; today it is often synonymous with volunteerism and the nonprofit sector.
"I see three sectors," said Sievers, the former director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, who is on the PACS steering committee and is a visiting scholar at the Haas Center."Economic models, political practices and civil society. To some degree, then, civil society has its own dynamic. There are intersections, but there is a distinct set of institutional structures unique to civil society.
"And I say, vive la différence! These spheres interact, which creates something more interesting than if they were simply smooshed together."
One of the core elements of PACS is the graduate workshop, where fellows and non-fellows study common readings and present their work. The students come from education, communications, economics, political science, sociology, business and environmental studies.
"It's a cliché, but it's really expanded our horizons," said Megan Tompkins, a student of Meyerson's."I definitely went toward more political ideas because of those interactions, because we all know such different things. We all have to defend our ideas, and it can get pretty intense."
One of the fellows this year is Hilary Schaffer, a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources (IPER). A couple of years ago she sat in on the fall semester of the workshop, and later she applied for the fellowship. Her project, about civic networks formed in response to natural gas facilities, has benefited as a result of the workshop, she said.
Referring to another graduate student with whom she has had a particularly fruitful interaction, she said,"We have totally different subjects but similar pathways. My favorite part about the workshop is hearing from other students. In fall we get a good basis in the literature, and then it's so much fun hearing how people apply the literature in different ways."
Powell, who has led the workshop for the past two years, said something similar:"The students learn that there are multiple pathways to one outcome, and also that one pathway can lead to multiple results. This is a nightmare for standard regression analysis, but it happens a lot."
When PACS was being organized, Powell said, several faculty members went to the provost to discuss the idea. Are there really that many graduate students interested in these topics? the provost asked. Yes, Powell replied, but they have no place to gather. Now they do.
"We've produced a community where the students can critique each other, help each other, interact," he said."That's our priority. For the first time, these students have intellectual colleagues.
"One student said, ‘This is the department I wish I was in.' They're willing to take risks now, they're not afraid, like they might be in their department. It's a wonderful venue for presenting work."
Among the dissertation topics that have found a home in the PACS workshop are the slums of Rio de Janeiro, teacher labor markets in India, secular and religious nonprofits in Chicago neighborhoods, school desegregation in San Francisco, political campaigns and the Internet, schooling in Sierra Leone, the efficacy of nonprofits adopting business plans, and the distribution of AIDS drugs by nonprofits in South Africa.
Tompkins ('00) is doing her dissertation on charter schools and philanthropy. She said she returned to Stanford from graduate school at Harvard precisely because the School of Education is so open to working with other schools and departments."It's woven into the fabric of the place; they don't just pay it lip service," she said.
So she's studying the ways in which large philanthropic organizations can shape education. Charter schools used to be small, locally-controlled ventures; lately, what are called charter management organizations have begun adopting economies of scale, using a more managerial, professional approach, Tompkins said.
"What's the normative impact of that?" she asked."Foundations seek niches where other foundations aren't active, so as a result, schools might shift to get more funding. In that way, philanthropy ends up affecting the educational agenda. What does this say about democracy?"
What happened to the state?
Similar questions are being raised by Sievers, whose degrees (in political science) are from Stanford. He is not interested in studying the management of philanthropy but rather its normative, moral essence. Voluntary engagement in civil society, he said, offers people a moral choice.
"Civil society allows opportunities for voices of dissent and champions of other modes of thinking," he said, offering such examples as the civil rights and the environmental movements."And ideally, philanthropy is one independent source of financial support not driven by the market that enables these ideas and movements to bubble up. Philanthropy is a critical piece of civil society."
And engagement is a critical component of philanthropy, he added. It's not enough for a percentage of your credit card purchases to be shipped off to charity; you have to engage directly in that cause.
"Rob Reich thinks philanthropy adds to inequity." he said, referring to Reich's path-breaking work on tax deductions for charitable contributions, which he argues end up hurting the people who most need help."I say that's the business of pluralism. The challenge is to have pluralism and equity balanced."
Reich, an associate professor of political science, and Sievers teach an undergraduate class together,"Theories of Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector."
Reich, a Teach for America alumnus whose Stanford Ph.D. is in education and who will join Powell and Meyerson as a PACS co-director in fall, is working on a book that will offer a political theory of philanthropy and examine the ethics of private activity in the public interest. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has come to assume enormous weight in American society; the Gates Foundation is the obvious example, but there are thousands of ways in which health care, education, the environment, culture—all of which used to be in the public sector—now rely on what used to be called charity.
"We need to do research on the relationship between philanthropy and government," Reich said."The center is a place to debate these issues, to ask uncomfortable questions. Philanthropists may expect a ‘celebration of philanthropy' here, but that's not what's going to happen. That's not what a university is all about."
For Powell, too, an expert on network and organizational theories, the center is a place for research and thinking, particularly about the ways in which civil society is supplanting the state.
"We're desperate for answers on this issue," he said."We're turning to big philanthropy to solve problems that governments used to resolve. And we think that's good, but there's NO evidence that it scales up, that it makes things work better. There's no sense that these private solutions will last."
Students' faith in nonprofits and entrepreneurship to solve society's problems is not surprising, he said, given that the state has been outsourcing social services for decades.
"Today there are thousands of little experiments going on. We're seeing an extraordinary preference for nonprofit or philanthropic delivery" of social services, he said."But is that revitalizing society? It reflects individualism; but at the same time, it also reflects volunteerism. It's a fantastically interesting time to be studying this stuff."
Theory and practice
PACS is less service-oriented than similar centers at other universities, that is, it doesn't advise nonprofits and foundations on how to run themselves. That, Kopell and Powell both pointed out, is something the Center for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business does exceedingly well. But PACS does invite practitioners to form part of its community.
That is the function of the PACS seminar. Speakers this year included Lucy Bernholz, president and founder of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc., a consulting firm for foundations, who spoke about if and how the Internet has changed giving (one of the best-known examples is Kiva, an online microfinance nonprofit with Stanford roots). Another guest was Elisabeth Clemens, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who delivered a paper on ways in which NGOs and similar organizations implicitly collaborate with government in mobilizing citizens in explicitly national projects, what she calls"charitable citizenship." And Google executives involved with google.org came to discuss the"charity gap"—the disturbing fact that only between 10 percent and 30 percent of donations actually help the poor. Most people give to religious, educational and cultural organizations. In other words, they give to themselves.
Along with the seminar, PACS is launching what they call scholar-practitioner dialogues, structured conversations before an audience that, Kopell said,"allow participants the rare opportunity to explore the landscape between research and practice."
Along the same lines, Powell said he'd like to create an informal venue, maybe with pizza, where the graduate workshop and the seminar could come together, so graduate students could present their work to people in the field.
Pizza is cheap, but many of the center's objectives require more. The Haas Center recently had eight of its goals approved by The Stanford Challenge, the university's ongoing fundraising effort. One of those,"public service scholarship," explicitly refers to PACS. So they're seeking donors. Philanthropy scholars need philanthropists, after all.