In 1998, economist Dr. John List was working as an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida when the dean of the school came to him with an idea: start a center for environmental policy analysis and help raise money to support it.
That idea, and the $5,000 that the dean gave Dr. List as seed money, sparked another idea about the science of giving and has led to a career for Dr. List focused on the science of economics of philanthropy.
At the time, Dr. List was toward the beginning of his academic career. He decided to reach out to the experts at the time to ask them what they knew about seed money, as well as the best scientific ways to raise donations.
“I asked questions such as, ‘what are the economics that underlie why people give and what keeps them committed to a cause?’ ” he explained.
What Dr. List discovered was enlightening and helped map out his research goals.
“No one at the time used science to guide their decisions, so I realized that I could set a research agenda based on the science of economics of philanthropy,” he said. “I could use field experiments to test theories in order to learn about the world while making it a better place.”
Since then, Dr. List has conducted experiments on topics ranging from optimal ways to use seed money, to using seed money as matching grant(s), to questioning how and why high net worth donors give to certain causes.
How does he determine which organizations to study?
“I look into what an organization has that is unique scientifically and what I can give them to help their organization,” Dr. List said. “Then I develop a study that supports them and further grows and develops the field of the economic science of philanthropy.”
These experiments not only further the academic study of philanthropy, but also assist practitioners in understanding how research applies to practicing philanthropy.
“By using these field experiments, nonprofit organizations and their staff understand how to use science in a more meaningful way. Experiments that focus on what causes donors to stay engaged by giving and volunteering to charitable causes helps connect practice to research and vice versa,” Dr. List explained. “I see continual room for growth while pushing the frontier of what we know in that realm.”
Strengthening the bridge between research and practice is Dr. List’s position at both the University of Chicago Department of Economics (where he is the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics) and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (where he holds the visiting Robert F. Hartsook Chair in Fundraising).
The thought partnership that has existed between the schools for many years led to the creation of the Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) Conference, a practitioner and academic conference that is jointly hosted by the two schools.
“The partnership between these thought institutions fosters questions such as, ‘what are the best questions to think about in regards to philanthropy? What are practitioners thinking about? What actions are people on the front lines undertaking?’ ” Dr. List said. “I think current and future partnerships between the two will open up new research frontiers about the study of philanthropy, while also involving and engaging practitioners in the science of philanthropy.”
He also pointed out the importance of these partnerships to enhance the understanding of philanthropy: “If you include volunteerism and dollars given, philanthropy is probably 10-12 percent of our economy. Multiple questions exist that we don’t have the answers to, such as ‘when giving is increased, what does that come from? Another charity, or one less vacation? How do we grow the overall pie of charitable giving?’
“We also don’t know a lot about the science of how the top half percent or one percent give. How do we induce more giving from the ultra-high net worth individuals? Do the lessons learned from the other parts of the population apply to those with a high net worth, or do they give for different reasons?
“We’re trying to pioneer learning through field experiments and data exercises to see if we can find answers to those questions.”
Overall, Dr. List is optimistic when it comes to the future of the partnership between the University of Chicago Department of Economics and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy: “Between the combination of students and scholars we have at both schools, I believe we’ll accomplish a great deal scientifically and will significantly expand practitioner knowledge as well.”