How does a violist become a fundraiser, and then decide to earn a Ph.D.? Native Singaporean Marina Tan Harper, Ph.D., originally came to the U.S. to Ball State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in viola performance. After completing her degree, she returned to play in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for eight years.
When she completed her service term there, Harper realized that she wanted to do more than play the viola. So, she returned to school at the University of Cincinnati to complete a master’s degree in arts administration.
“Arts administration was how I could translate my previous knowledge of performance into a master’s degree,” she explained.
After completing her master’s degree, Harper began working at the Kokomo Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Ballet, which led to her introduction to fundraising. She soon discovered that she wanted to focus on fundraising full-time but wanted to shift from arts fundraising to higher education fundraising. After a five-year stint at Northern Kentucky University, “which really helped me hone my skills and put them in perspective,” she was recruited to return to Singapore to begin the development office at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
“I started the whole development effort from scratch, and it was a tremendous career opportunity,” she said.
During her tenure at NTU, Harper grew senior class giving from less than 1 percent to over 80 percent, and alumni giving to over 20 percent, instilling a culture of giving at NTU where giving became the norm for students, alumni, and faculty/staff. The latter paved the way for external entities to also get excited about supporting NTU in big ways—from individuals to foundations and corporations—to endow and name scholarships, fellowships, professorships, schools, research facilities, and awards of excellence.
After 9.5 years, Harper and her husband knew that they wanted to return to the U.S sometime soon. Around that time, Harper met Dr. Gene Tempel in Singapore at an IU alumni event.
“Dr. Tempel told me that the Center on Philanthropy was becoming the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and they were looking for research in Asian philanthropy,” Harper said. “I told him that I was a musician and fundraiser, and hadn’t conducted research before! His encouragement and his confidence in me led me to investigate what a Ph.D. entailed and to reconsider its viability.
“Gene (Tempel) opened the door and helped me realize that earning a Ph.D. could be a part of my vision for my life. He convinced me that it was a good opportunity, so I thought I would apply and see what happened.”
Harper was accepted into the program and moved to Indianapolis to take courses full-time for two years. During her time here, she learned about the research process and philanthropy from a wider lens. Different professors helped shape her thinking and provide diverse lenses into the world of generosity.
“From David King, I took a religion and ethics class. From Una (Osili), I learned about writing the proposal for the dissertation,” Harper said. “Dwight (Burlingame) gave me an in-depth understanding of the third sector and guided me through the Ph.D. process, while Sue (Hyatt) and Jeanette (Dickerson-Putman) at anthropology showed me the way to understand human behavior through their norms, values, and culture, and Claire (Draucker) at nursing helped me consolidate my research methodology. So many people contributed, and it was truly an interdisciplinary program.
“Each professor brought different ideas to the table, and it was a conglomeration of these pieces that helped make the program the amazing experience it was.”
During her coursework, Harper began to form the direction of her dissertation. With her scholarship, she knew she had to focus on Asian philanthropy, but she soon realized how wide open and under-researched the field was: “Asia, specifically Southeast Asia where I’m originally from, was an open space for research. With the scholarship and the curiosity to learn more about my own culture, I believed Southeast Asia would be a good place to start.
“I also had a head start because I knew that my research focus would include high net-worth donors. Through my position at NTU, I had relationships with donors who could also introduce me to others in that space.
“My data points and interviews all originated in Singapore, but you can get a glimpse of all of Southeast Asia through the diversity of cultures and societies represented there.”
Harper utilized her knowledge in philanthropy and the Chinese diaspora in Singapore during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to begin crafting the narrative about how philanthropy evolved in those spaces during that time—shadowing the philanthropic action of Chinese diaspora families, individuals, collective giving groups and clan circles.
“When the first generation emigrated into Singapore, they sent money to China to build bridges, community schools and halls, and other supportive community institutions,” she said. “This was because the first generation came with the mindset of a sojourner, sworn to retire and die in motherland China.
“However, historical and political circumstances did not allow them to return to China so that their second and third generations were born as nationals locally where they had settled in Southeast Asia. These next generations became disengaged and lost their loyalty to China; they began giving outside of China since they grew up in Southeast Asia, which had become their home.”
Through her interviews, Harper identified how individuals came to philanthropy and how family, ancestry, identity, and social norms shaped their giving, volunteering, and aspirations for greater good over time.
The researching and writing process of her work took place while Harper accepted a job leading the international fundraising department full-time at UC Davis.
“They recognized that Asian fundraising experience and knowledge was important to have on top of the experience in higher education advancement, so I had an advantage in leading that department,” she said.
Fast-forward three years later: after defending her dissertation and graduating this spring, Harper plans to continue working in her current job at UC Davis. “I love working directly with donors, alumni, parents on the ground to help increase the philanthropic footprint for higher education in Asia.”
For Harper, completing a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies has been a “tremendous, transformative experience.”
“I’m the first Ph.D. on my side and my husband’s side of the family,” she said. “I am grateful to have had this opportunity from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy to complete this work.”
And for others thinking about or working on research in the field?
“Follow your heart. Stay with it; let the difficult moments pass. Play the tenacity game, and let the data speak to you and inspire you. It’s all in the data for you to connect with, indulge, and learn more.”