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Is philanthropy necessarily a force for social good, or is there a darker side to giving?

Is philanthropy necessarily a force for social good, or is there a darker side to giving?

In the context of education, does the upsurge in philanthropic private and voluntary sector activity represent an invaluable injection of innovation and resourcing; or an undemocratic vehicle for the influence of private corporations and wealthy individuals?


These were some of the questions raised by the launch of a fascinating piece of ESRC-funded research by Professor Stephen Ball and Carolina Junemann at the Institute of Education, that examined "new philanthropy" in state education. Stephen and Carolina presented a series of  "network maps" which depicted the riot of charities, private companies, think tanks, educational bodies and key individuals involved in "new" educational philanthropy, and the ways in which they are connected. What these vividly illustrated was the dominance of key corporations and individuals across these maps. The maps also represented a relatively small community, in which key names and organisations frequently recurred. The network maps also highlighted change from the past: in contrast to "older philanthropy" (including charities such as The Jospeph Rowntree Foundation and so on), religious institutions were scarcely represented, suggesting a reduction in religious identity as a direct motivator for philanthropy (although the researchers noted involvement of some faith-based institutions and religious motivations for a few key individuals).


So what marks the "new philanthropy"? This delineation from the "old" was not always clear. For example, finance capital was presented as new, whereas many of the "old" philanthropic organisations also derived directly from business. But also, the researchers pointed to the personal and social activities involved with new philanthropy, and the ways in which business, social and political relationships are closely inter-twined. The most convincing rupture with "old philanthropy" is the new organisations’ insistence on the relationship between giving and outcomes – a notion of returns to philanthropic investment. What has also shifted is the approach of Government: New Labour has specifically encouraged this philanthropic resourcing in education, and nurtured relationships with these organisations and key players. Is the state using philanthropy to fill a gap in funding and ideas?

So what should we make of this? That these new philanthropic organisations are often backed by multi-national corporations, and that their representatives often have immediate access to ministerial ears, does raise a range of questions relating to the delineation of public and private sectors, and democratic process. Unions and those on the left will be worried at the evident influence of powerful private sector agents and wealthy individuals on the direction of state education. Clearly, these corporations have much to gain in their philanthropy in terms of marketing (sponsorship, branding, reach to consumers), and influence on the nature of education and curriculum content. Yet no one can doubt the genuine commitment of many of the key players involved, and the innovative practice that some of these philanthropic interventions have generated.

What was notable in the researchers’ presentation was the relative absence of Higher Education Institutions, academic figures, and established education institutions (unions etc) from the network maps. This pictorial representation of the gaps provided startling illustration of the lack of influence of established academic and educational expertise in the new educational philanthropy. I see this as a useful and timely prompt to academics to think harder about how to "get their ideas out there". Clearly their myriad of other duties (including preparing for the Research Excellence Framework, which ironically includes a measure of "impact") impede innovation here. But as Stephen and Carolina’s work so effectively showed, it is think tanks, private and voluntary sector organisations that are owning this space in their stead.

Meanwhile, in relation to our own philanthropic work at the RSA, the discussion after the seminar reminded of the importance of maintaining understandings of reciprocity and mutuality in giving. This democratic understanding encourages us to think of both giver and receiver as benefitting, and the transfer of learning and capitals as not simply one-way.


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