Strengthening the relationship between philanthropy and research

What topics should and can be explored that are essential to the functioning of philanthropy? How should we shape this closer collaboration between philanthropy and research, and how should we fund it? I wrote the framework paper for this conference entitled ‘Imagining the Future of Philanthropy Research in Europe’ and gave the opening speech.

On 23 September 2022, the International Philanthropy Research Conference took place in Turin with approximately 30 representatives from the European foundation world and 30 from the world of philanthropy research in Europe. Almost 4 years ago I started to prepare myself as a consultant for the Compagnia di San Paolo. Since 2020, we have had a steering group for the actual organization of this conference. In addition to Compagnia, Philea and ERNOP were also part of it.

Why this conference?
The purpose of the international conference was to further strengthen the relationship between philanthropy and philanthropy research. What topics should and can be explored that are essential to the functioning of philanthropy? How should we shape this closer collaboration between philanthropy and research, and how should we fund it? I myself wrote the ‘framework paper’ for this conference under the title ‘Imagining the Future of Philanthropy Research in Europe’ and I gave the opening speech.

The foundation was laid by Philea and ERNOP
Fortunately, a foundation has already been laid for closer cooperation between philanthropy and philanthropy research, as a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2019 between the European Foundation Center (now Philea) and ERNOP. This document states: “The EFC believes that academic research on philanthropy can further help to profile and professionalize the European philanthropy sector, increase its impact and increase its legitimacy.” And ‘ERNOP recognizes the need for academic output to be aware of its practical implications. Researchers should design research projects that are rigorous and relevant to philanthropy practitioners without losing academic quality.’

The importance of research to philanthropy is now more important than ever
Yet there are a number of reasons why a closer relationship between philanthropy and philanthropy research is now more important than ever. in my book ‘Philanthropy back to the drawing board’ I will go into detail on this topic. Foundations are confronted with a new reality. They grow in number and size; they are becoming more important and are seen as partners in solving complex problems in cooperation with each other and with governments; they become more visible. In short, philanthropy has become more relevant and wants to be relevant. The agenda of many foundations is ambitious. However, there is a philanthropy paradox, because at the same time as the importance increases, we also see that there is mistrust in society and that there is criticism. Questions are asked about relevance, about the source of the philanthropic money, about transparency and more broadly about the legitimacy of philanthropy. What is their ‘license to operate’?

In my book I go into detail about this paradox and the question of how the sector should deal with it, but for the purposes of this article I will only point out that practical research into the place of philanthropy in democracy vis-à-vis actors such as government and business is important. And there are many other topics that require elaboration, such as: impact evaluation, the relationship between foundations and their grantees, mission-related investing, knowing the root causes of problems before making donations. In short, in the current era of disruptions, such as Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, a powerful research infrastructure is needed to strengthen critical thinking of funds, to support new trends, reveal fads and contribute to ‘good judgement’ .

Despite the positive development, there are challenges
Although I see philanthropy and philanthropy research growing against each other, it’s not just cake and eggs. I would like to point out two main challenges. First and foremost, philanthropy research needs data, data from the everyday practice of funds. If foundations believe that research can learn something from everyday practice and that they, the foundations, can benefit from applied research, then in my opinion the funds should be much more generous in making data available for research.

The second challenge is how to fund philanthropy research. Foundations tend to be particularly willing to pay for research that has immediate relevance to issues arising at the foundation level. But in my view, philanthropy research has two other goals, and they also need to be funded. It primarily concerns research into matters that are not yet directly relevant. They are supposedly just around the corner and are not really on the radar screen of funds yet. As an example, I mention the potential importance of behavioral economics and artificial intelligence for philanthropy. Philanthropy should value this research role, which I refer to as the ‘lookout function’, and put discretionary funding on the table for it. The same should also apply to the role of philanthropy research as philanthropy’s alter ego, the louse in the coat. As an example, I would mention that funds sometimes continue their substantive mission for many years and use the same strategies and instruments without being critically examined. Research could keep funds sharp in that connection. Both the lookout function and the lice in the coat require a lot of free funds for philanthropy research.

How can we ensure the funding of research
Who will financially cough up the research aimed at ‘lookout function’ and ‘lice in the coat’? In my paper for the international conference in Turin, I advocate the establishment of knowledge platforms at national level with a public-private character. Such a platform brings together a number of parties: the relevant universities (which have a department/chairs in philanthropy research), the national associations of foundations and some prominent private actors such as foundations, philanthropists, family offices and companies. It means a “pooling” of public and private resources to allow this part of scientific research to take place in a non-commercial environment. As mentioned, the funding for this must partly come from the universities themselves (the public part). I find it quite bizarre that universities in the Netherlands are increasingly busy establishing an infrastructure (such as separate departments for fundraising and own fundraising university funds) to generate philanthropic money for the university as a whole, while the allocation of funds for the philanthropy research itself is underserved.

There will no doubt be arguments that my proposal regarding knowledge platforms is neither desirable nor feasible. However, my hope is that this thought will inspire the relevant players in the philanthropy sector to think about realizing the underlying goal. Because more than ever, the practice of philanthropy needs robust and practice-oriented research, and research needs access to real data and practical experience.

Read my paper ‘Framing the Issue: Imagining the Future of Philanthropy Research in Europe’

My presentation in Turin was followed by that of Prof. Renee Bekkers, professor of philanthropy at the Free University of Amsterdam.


Author Rien van Gendt, former number 1 in the DDB100 and internationally respected and recognized philanthropy consultant and director, is one of the DDB experts. De Dikke Blauwe takes over articles on its new website and publishes them in the DDB Journal. In some cases, Van Gendt also comments on articles on De Dikke Blauwe’s website and places them, where relevant, on his own website.

Philanthropy returns to the drawing board on October 26: a future funding agenda by the (inter)nationally recognized philanthropy expert Dr. Rien van Gendt (, at Walburg Philanthropy.

Major disruptors such as Covid-19 and the Ukraine war are forcing asset funds and charities to reflect on their mission, strategy and way of working. With this book, Van Gendt challenges fund managers and supervisors to continuously work on a future agenda with a strong disruption absorption capacity, both internally and with the social organizations they support.

Philanthropy back to the drawing board: a future funding agenda will be presented during Civil Power 2022 and is also the theme of the event.

You can reserve the book directly here.

►Read all articles about and by Rien van Gendt on DDB’s website: click here

Leave a Comment