Last week in Istanbul The International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) concluded its ninth international conference. It was a rich experience, showcasing some of the most accomplished and thoughtful researchers and scholars in civil society and philanthropy from around the globe.
ISTR is a major international association that promotes research and education in the fields of philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and civil society. It provides a forum for the development and dissemination of knowledge and builds a much-needed global community of third sector researchers and scholars.
For those of us who aspire to understand and strengthen philanthropy’s potential to advance equitable economic growth and social justice, the conference was a gold mine with multiple veins. At more than a dozen sessions colleagues presented new research and new thinking on philanthropy as it is perceived and practiced around the globe. Papers explored giving in a wide variety of geographical dimensions: local, national, regional and transnational giving. Other research examined new concepts and initiatives around giving models and strategies that included venture philanthropy and diaspora giving. Still others explored philanthropy’s ability to affect specific areas and issues such as climate change, disaster relief, and economic inequities.
Taking the conference sessions as a whole, several themes stood out:
(1) a widespread belief that philanthropy has an increasingly important role to play around the globe. A substantial number of papers and sessions from Africa, the Arab region, Asia and Europe demonstrated the rapidly expanding interest in and the practice of philanthropy. Persistent poverty, chronic underdevelopment, and economic and social inequities compel more and more individuals to take private action. Happily, such action is facilitated by widespread political reform, increasingly favorable policy environments, and the growing diversity of philanthropic giving models and strategies.
(2) a recognition of the formidable challenges faced by philanthropy and civil society. Despite its promise – and a determination to achieve it – philanthropy and face numerous challenges -- some common, some unique to specific countries or regions. Longstanding obstacles founded in political constraints, societal expectations, and cultural norms combine with new challenges posed by the global economic and financial crisis and concerns regarding global security and terrorist activities. In many places, philanthropy and civil society are largely limited to charitable work and service delivery. In many countries legal and political controls continue to limit private engagement.
(3) a philanthropic approach characterized by innovation and diversity. As philanthropy emerges and evolves around the world, it is unconstrained by pre-defined concepts, definitions, forms, and roles. Rather, there is a tendency to explore new and creative philanthropic approaches best suited to local needs, societal norms, and policy environments. Inspiration can come from long-standing indigenous giving customs as well as international “best practices.” For example, the widespread model of independent grantmaking foundations – common in the US and some other parts of the world – is far less prevalent elsewhere, ceding its dominance to operating foundations, hybrid models, and collaborative giving efforts.
Innovative thinking and empirical knowledge is a powerful combination in any field. Regrettably and perhaps surprisingly, it is a combination that is too often absent from discussions of global philanthropy. ISTR should be recognized and applauded for its role in bringing both knowledge and creativity to the table. If it can maintain its impressive track record in the years to come, it will represent a significant contribution to better understanding and strengthening philanthropy and civil society worldwide.