10 January 2023

Reflections on the International Philanthropy Research Conference

“I am convinced that research and philanthropy make perfect partners. The history of modern philanthropy shows it.”

With these words, Francesco Profumo, Chair, Compagnia di San Paolo, opened the recent International Philanthropy Research Conference, organised in close cooperation with ERNOP and Philea. The three organisations believe in the importance of philanthropy research and tighter cooperation between researchers and professionals; and in the creation of a modern and sustainable model of philanthropy.

The first day was dedicated to ERNOP’s annual meeting, where, in four workshops, crucial topics on the current situation of philanthropic research, as well as its future direction, were discussed in the context of a joint research project on philanthropy across Europe. On the following day, practitioners and academics had the chance to engage in a debate dedicated to key aspects of scientific research on philanthropy, such as data availability and specific investigation methodology. The outcome of both days will merge into a COST action that ERNOP will submit to the European Commission.

Foundations and academia are, by nature, ever-reforming and ever-evolving institutions. They are required to keep up with major societal changes to remain useful or avoid becoming obsolete. In a data-driven society like the European one – and even more now considering the pandemic and war on the continent – philanthropy can benefit greatly from research regarding its missions, its modus operandi, and its allocation choices. Additionally, research can help maximise impact and support growth, transparency, and accountability. 

The five papers that were presented in the main panel ranged from the promotion of philanthropic networks to fostering interdisciplinary research and the enhancement of impact evaluation, also taking into account the increasing need ‒ but also the legitimacy ‒ at the very heart of philanthropic actions. 

Starting from the framing paper by Rien Van Gendt, advisor on the project to Compagnia di San Paolo, the session focused on the state of philanthropic research in the last decade and a half, presented by René Bekkers, Professor of Philanthropy, VU Amsterdam. Liz McKeon then addressed topics around legitimacy and the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, at a time when we are facing diminishing democratic values across various countries. Gian Paolo Barbetta, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and Director, Evalab Fondazione Giordano Dell’Amore, delivered a presentation on the methodological aspects of the very nature of impact and its evaluation. The papers’ presentation was closed by Volker Then, Chief Executive Officer and Member of the Executive Board, Fondazione AIS – Advancing Impact and Sustainability, who spoke about the importance of listening to grantees and partners in terms of strategy making.

The other sessions included contributions by Angel Font, President of Philea;  Tobias Jung, Chair, ERNOP and Professor, University of St Andrews; Gerry Salole, Chair, the Supervisory Board, the European Cultural Foundation and Advisor Board Member, the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment; Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor, HEC; and Thomas Venon, Executive Director, the Centre for Development Finance Studies

The conference then went on to investigate the areas of research on and for philanthropy. On the one hand, foundations need to periodically confirm their legitimacy and consciously work harder to improve their impact. On the other, academic programmes need to be attuned with the most relevant issues in the field. Foundations can provide funding, but, most importantly, they can provide perspectives in terms of employment of trained young professionals and in terms of making data available. In addition, research on philanthropy requires multidisciplinary talents to create a common, functional and shared language as well as a corpus of well-tested knowledge. Structured research programmes on philanthropy could go beyond both benevolent and malevolent prejudice on both sides, help both parties to move beyond rhetorical walls and received ideas, and therefore enhance foundations’ work and research insight. 

Read the full paper offering insights on the whole conference “Reflections on the International Philanthropy Research Conference“.

The individual papers can all be found below:

The conference programme was put together with the valuable help of an advisory board that included the following members: Barry Hoolwerf, ERNOP; Delphine Moralis, Philea; Gerry Salole, European Cultural Foundation; Gian Paolo Barbetta, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore; Marco De Marie, Compagnia di San Paolo; Rien Van Gendt, Compagnia di San Paolo; Sevda Killicalp, Philea; and Theo Schuyt, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.


Sevda Kilicalp
Head of Knowledge and Learning