It’s the first day of the semester for students at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. We thought we’d introduce them and you to the dean of the school, Amir Pasic, Ph.D.
Pasic spoke with us to discuss his background, what brought him to philanthropy, and what he most enjoys about working at the school.
Education: B.A. Economics and Political Science, Yale University; M.A. International Relations, Johns Hopkins University; Ph.D. Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
What is your background, and how did you discover philanthropy?
Amir Pasic (AP): I trained as a scholar in international relations and political science. I had some interaction with philanthropy when I organized a conference on ethics and international relations, which was supported by a family from Rhode Island. I also benefited from philanthropy throughout my education through fellowships and the support that enabled the institutions I attended to become what they are.
I joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund after the Cold War concluded, which is when I began seeing philanthropy differently and understanding it more deeply.
After the conclusion of my time at the Fund, I had the opportunity to serve as a fundraiser for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I conducted prospect research and supported fundraising for the library. While the U.S. government pays for the all of the material within the library, independent, private donations support programs, conferences, exhibits, and the then-digitization of material in the library and the creation of its first website.
I also assisted with the Madison Council, a group of wealthy philanthropists from around the country who advised the librarian and supported the special programs that the library presented.
How did you enter into higher education?
AP: After my time at the library, I returned to Johns Hopkins University, which is where I received my master’s degree. I worked there as a director of development, focusing mostly on corporations and foundations but also developing special strategic projects.
Johns Hopkins sees its development operation as the difference maker for the university, and leaders take talent development within the individual schools quite seriously. Based on my experience there, I realized how important development was for making universities run and helping connect scholars and students to life-changing opportunities.
After a brief amount of time in the central development operation at George Washington University, I returned to Johns Hopkins to be the associate dean for development and strategic planning, running a small think tank at the time as well.
After that, I was recruited by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the second largest educational association after The College Board, to serve as a vice president for international operations. My responsibilities included serving members around the world, helping work on different aspects of CASE programs that were in different stages of evolution, and assisting North American-based universities with their international outreach programs as well.
It was during this position that I met (Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Founding Dean Emeritus) Gene Tempel in Singapore, when he was giving a presentation to the National University of Singapore.
What drew you to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy?
AP: At CASE, I was trying to establish more and better connections between research and practice, given my background in the scholarly world and my more practitioner-based work experience.
I thought it was an interesting idea that the center had become a school and was devoted to improving and disseminating knowledge about nonprofits and philanthropy.
During the interview process, I was very impressed by the new, young faculty who chose this school because of its interdisciplinary nature and the fact that it is deeply connected to practitioners. Faculty members were so excited to build this new field and connect their careers to this experiment.
That led me to the conclusion that if the school thought that I could make a contribution, I would be fortunate to have this opportunity.
Do you have a favorite part of your job?
AP: Interacting with students is always a great deal of fun, and reminds me why I’m here.
What are the school’s strengths, and how do you hope to build on them?
AP: We have extremely innovative and adventurous students and faculty. I’d like to continue to build on that innovative spirit and continue to openly build the field moving forward.
I do believe that we increasingly have to meet students where they are. We can’t simply assume that you offer a class in a classroom, and that’s the end of the story. I think we’re going to have to figure out ways online and through inventive advising to be alongside students as they continue to work and take care of their families.
Why does philanthropic research matter?
AP: What strikes me the most is understanding the context of giving and volunteering more deeply and asking the why questions. Why do people give? Does measuring giving matter? How does giving connect to the human condition more broadly, and how does it connect to broader social trends and social understandings?
Providing students with that broad context helps them become more effective in what they do. By recognizing the meaning of philanthropy in society, you’re able to help others and educate yourself on how to understand your own generosity. It is such a powerful force, one that we often overlook to our own detriment.
What is the future of the study of philanthropy?
AP: I think there’s an increasing understanding that philanthropy is important, but we’re struggling to understand what that means and how it relates to wealth and inequality.
At the same time, we realize that philanthropy is not only about wealth, but that it’s about the kind of generosity and creative potential that everybody has.
We want to participate in these discussions in the way that a higher education institution should, by providing knowledge and helping train students to be prepared for these conversations, which have the power to move the world.
What are your goals for the school in the next 5-10 years?
AP: I hope that we can engage more people in the field more broadly to understand that we serve as a resource for them. We are also an important part of a network of academic talent that wants to deepen people’s understanding of the philanthropic world. So, I hope we continue to find ways of doing that, whether it’s through conferences and convenings, or through new ways of disseminating research and translating it to make research and scholarship more accessible and involved in the world.
We also want to engage our policymakers in government and all the philanthropists among us to see that there’s a broader reservoir of knowledge that they can tap into.
On a lighter note, what do you like to do outside of work?
AP: I enjoy being with my family and reading. We like watching good movies together, too.