Dr. Charles Sellen is the inaugural “Global Philanthropy Fellow” working on the Global Philanthropy Indices at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy this year. He is also a Fulbright laureate. Learn about how he discovered his passion for philanthropy and why philanthropy can be viewed as an art of diplomacy.
How did you become initially interested in the study of philanthropy?
I always wanted to be a diplomat. Thus, I went to study international affairs at Sciences Po in Strasbourg and in Paris. During my exchange year at Georgetown University in 2003-2004, I was part of the Global Living Community, a group of international students in charge of stimulating cultural diversity on the campus. This is where I learned the basics of intercultural skills.
Meanwhile, I served as an intern at the Embassy of France in Washington where my chief assignment was to write a report on the international funding from U.S. foundations. This research helped French NGOs better understand the U.S. philanthropic landscape to raise funds for their overseas activities. For me, this was a life-changing experience. Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to further understand philanthropy in every possible dimension.
How did you make your way into the realm of philanthropy?
When returning home in 2004, I decided to focus on this amazing field. Back then in France, “philanthropic studies” was “terra incognita,” or yet to be explored. So, in the absence of any academic curriculum in the field, I had to imagine innovative ways to train myself. I chose to specialize in economics with an interdisciplinary approach, and I earned my Ph.D. in 2012. Things are moving forward in France now, with growing interest among scholars and students.
For 15 years I witnessed—and analyzed—the burgeoning and expansion of the French philanthropic sector since the 2003 legislation that increased fiscal incentives and softened government regulations. But I could not stay away from my appetite for world affairs. Therefore, I joined the French Agency for Development (AFD), our government institution devoted to development cooperation, which is equivalent to USAID. I worked for the past five years as a scientific publisher, and I helped raise awareness about the rising influence of private foundations in the international development arena. In 2015-2017, AFD supported a series of philanthropy surveys including a mapping of global flows, and two spotlights on Asia and the Arab world.
What projects will you conduct at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in relation to your expertise?
As the inaugural “Global Philanthropy Fellow” hosted by the school for the 2019-2020 academic year, I am contributing to the research department’s international agenda, namely with two major comparative studies:
- The Global Philanthropy Environment Index, which assesses the enabling environment for philanthropy in 79 economies;
- The Global Philanthropy Resource Flows Index, which examines the sources and magnitude of cross-border giving in the world, alongside private investment, official development aid, and remittances.
Why come to the U.S., and specifically, to Indiana to conduct research and study philanthropy?
The U.S. has the most advanced philanthropy ecosystem in the world. We can learn a lot by observing it from abroad, but it is also necessary to understand it from within.
In my view, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is simply the best place to study philanthropy because it offers the full spectrum of approaches from a multidisciplinary perspective, with capacities in research, teaching, training, innovation, and policy analysis. There is no equivalent elsewhere in the world.
How is French philanthropy different, compared to the U.S.?
France now offers a regulatory framework among the world’s most conducive for private giving. The Global Philanthropy Environment Index ranks France among the leading pack. The tax deduction appears even more advantageous in France than in the U.S.: individuals may deduct 66 percent (and in some instances 75 percent) of the amount of their charitable gifts from the taxes owed to the state. Whereas in the U.S., the gift is deductible from the taxable income.
Paradoxically, despite such a stimulating framework, observed levels of generosity per household in France remain significantly lower than in the U.S. One of my working hypotheses to explain this difference relates to the predominant political philosophy about respective roles that the state and civil society should play.
Another challenge for French-speaking countries worldwide is to further connect their private nonprofit sectors internationally around the idea of Francophone philanthropy, which still needs to be shaped.
You said that diplomacy was your first dream job. How does this affect your approach to philanthropy?
First, because of my background, I constantly seek to bridge knowledge gaps between researchers, practitioners and decision-makers. This requires speaking their respective languages and aligning their objectives—an approach similar to the work of diplomats. In the same way, philanthropists often need to interact with divergent stakeholders to achieve positive impact.
Secondly, when adopting an international perspective, one must recognize that various audiences understand the concept of “philanthropy” quite differently across the world. It is deeply rooted in each cultural context. There is no “one-size-fits-all.” Acknowledging this diversity of values and meanings is a prerequisite to invite everyone to join the global conversation about altruism.
Thirdly, from a more strategic viewpoint, we need to anticipate the regulations (especially on cross-border giving) and the major trends (online giving, new vehicles, hybrid forms) that will shape tomorrow’s philanthropy. We ought to decipher the influences of philanthropic actors (foundations, NGOs, individual donors) that constitute a new global force that can be engaged to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
For these reasons—being inclusive, understanding cultures, and thinking strategically—I believe that global philanthropy is an art of diplomacy.