by David P. King, Ph.D.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet utters the famous line, “What’s in a name? … a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Sometimes I wonder if that is true for philanthropy as well. Making sense of philanthropy is not easy. First, it can be a difficult word to pronounce and spell! Second, it can be difficult to define and discuss. I am learning that some of our most critical work may be in listening, opening up conversation, and helping make sense of what we mean when we turn to the topic of philanthropy.
I have just returned from sabbatical where I spent part of 2022 at the University of Edinburgh as a U.S. Fulbright scholar to Scotland. The purpose of the Fulbright program is to promote cultural exchange through building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities, and improving lives around the world. For me, that meant studying faith and philanthropy in comparative perspective. And in conversations, my first task was most often to explain what I meant by philanthropy and make the case for why anyone would study it.
Philanthropy in Context
Understanding context is extremely important. Across the United Kingdom there is a long history of philanthropy, but it is often still viewed through the lineage of a Victorian past under the auspices of the wealthy or the patronage of the royal family. With the rise of the welfare state in the early twentieth century, there was the hope that the U.K. could eliminate the need for any reliance on charity and philanthropy. Yet, in recent decades, with a decline in government funding, public leaders have called on the need for private giving as well as the need for voluntary agencies to play a key role in providing services and sustaining local communities. While the U.K. is observing similar trends to the U.S., with relatively flat growth in giving and a decline in the number of givers, its philanthropic footprint remains much smaller. When residents of the United Kingdom engaged with me in conversations on philanthropy, it was often out of a sense of curiosity, contradiction, or critical reflection.