She calls herself a global citizen, and for Sevda Kilicalp, the self-moniker rings true. The Turkish native has spent years working to promote the philanthropic sector in Turkey, completed most of her master’s degree in Italy, spent one semester of her master’s program in the U.S., and evaluated programs around the world.
Now, Kilicalp is living in Brussels, Belgium, where she’s finishing her Ph.D. from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy while working full-time as thematic networks coordinator for the European Foundation Centre (EFC), a membership-based organization that works to strengthen the sector and make the case for institutional philanthropy as a “formidable means of effecting change.”
How does someone with extensive global knowledge of the field become involved in it initially? Kilicalp first discovered the sector as a young volunteer. Building on those experiences and her undergraduate work, she began her career at Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV), where she worked on a comparative research study that looked at giving in Muslim countries. Being exposed to international networks at the time opened her eyes to studying philanthropy from a more global perspective.
“I was interested in the politics of help, so when I came here, I wrote a master’s thesis with the supervision of historian Dr. Kevin Robbins about how power relations played out in the evolution of philanthropic traditions in the Mediterranean context,” she said.
After completing her master’s degree in Italy and returning to work for an international humanitarian aid organization and later TUSEV, Kilicalp realized that she wanted more knowledge about philanthropy and nonprofit management: “I became more convinced about the missing link between academia and nonprofit organizations and wanted to play a role in facilitating knowledge translation.”
To do that, she decided to apply for a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies with the plan to return to Indiana. Throughout her Ph.D. work (some on campus and some remote), Kilicalp continued to work for TUSEV and then opened her own consultancy to build the capacities of nonprofit organizations.
“I started my own business doing research and trainings to helping organizations build sound strategies, fundraise effectively, design innovative solutions, and evaluate programs,” she said.
When she decided to move to Belgium, Kilicalp closed her consultancy and decided to focus on writing and completing her dissertation full-time. However, an opportunity arose that she couldn’t pass up: the chance to work with EFC, which is based in Brussels in a building called ‘Philanthropy House.’
“I really like EFC. I’ve participated in many of their events and benefited from their research and publications over the years,” Kilicalp said.
“In addition, many people don’t understand what we’re doing when we mention we work in philanthropy. The opportunity here for me to contribute and help expand what that word means was one I couldn’t pass up.”
As one of the thematic networks coordinators, Kilicalp is in charge of four of EFC’s networks: gender equality, diversity, migration, and integration, disability, and children’s network.
“Our members work in many different areas, and they’re interested in exploring topics, deepening their knowledge, and sharing their experiences,” she said. “So we’ve created safe environments for them to share all of this learning and knowledge within a closed group. It allows them to share ideas and advice without feeling external pressures.”
She also runs the organization’s international leadership programs, one in which European philanthropy leaders meet with Chinese philanthropy leaders once a year, and a new one where European leaders meet with philanthropy leaders from Russia, a country that combines European and Asian heritage in philanthropy.
By bringing member organizations together through programs and its large annual conference, EFC hopes to catalyze tools and resources to be shared amongst its members.
“We recognize that each organization has different approaches, but they can come together and brainstorm solutions that may work for them. They value the diversity of different viewpoints, but also know they can work together to solve similar challenges,” Kilicalp explained.
In the past, Kilicalp trained and mentored nonprofit organizations and produced materials to enhance philanthropy infrastructure and improve various aspects of organizational management. She hopes to combine her current and previous work, and with her educational knowledge and expertise, to be a critical voice and an enabler for the nonprofit sector: “I hope to enable organizations to recognize that things may be missing or could be improved. I hope to help them become more inclusive, more democratically organized, and more open to learning.
“The challenges the sector faces are becoming more complex. In order to stay relevant and have an impact, we have to be more self-reflective and open to change.”
Kilicalp has used research for her Ph.D. to focus on nonprofit organizations in a changing environment. With the guidance of her chair Dr. Lehn Benjamin, Kilicalp analyzes organizations’ internal practices, what challenges some face with several crackdowns on civil society, and how they adapt to changing citizen demands.
“It’s an interesting time. While nonprofits face government pressure to behave in a certain manner, civic engagement is also growing in more participatory ways,” she said. “Individuals want to see more open, transparent, and democratic organizations. Otherwise, they will create their own solutions outside of the nonprofit. So, I wanted to see how nonprofits respond to these pressures and what internal changes they make.”
Kilicalp looked at this question of how nonprofits respond by studying six Turkish organizations working on children’s issues. Based on the systematic analysis of the explanations and justifications of research participants concerning why they adopt certain practices, she describes the conflicting demands imposed by conflicting institutional prescriptions on major organizational elements.
She analyzes evolution of expressive activities, funding streams, governance mechanism, performance accountability, program strategy, relationship with government, and relationship with other nonprofits to determine how successful the case organizations were in paying attention to government pressure and risk, but also figuring out how they could contribute to social change and find different ways to connect with citizens. In this way, she seeks to understand unique challenges nonprofit leaders face in a changing environment.
While she’s excited to share these specific results with and about the organizations in Turkey, Kilicalp also hopes to create an analytical framework that can be applied to other countries as well.
“I hope that other researchers across different countries will benefit from the framework I use to examine internal practices of nonprofits with various governing ideologies and how these are evolving in response to the external pressures, and understand why and how changes in the environment lead different segments of the nonprofit sector to act differently,” she said.
She also hopes to encourage collaboration across the world with those working in philanthropy.
“Europe, for example, has its own traditions and own stories of philanthropy that are very different from the U.S. experience,” Kilicalp said. “We have our own tools and scholarship, and are building our own capacities.
“However, there’s space for collaboration and a space for learning between the U.S. and Europe. Both parties should establish an equal partnership—recognizing that traditions and structures for philanthropy are different—but we can learn from each other’s different experiences.”
For now though, Kilicalp is excited to finish writing her dissertation, share her results with the nonprofits she worked with, and graduate next May.
“I’ve worked full-time while completing this Ph.D., so I’m excited to complete this work and attend the commencement ceremony in my Ph.D. hood,” she said.
“I can’t wait to do that, and then use my experience in the future to serve as a bridge between academics and practitioners.”