Interview with Arjen De Wit, PhD Candidate from VU University, Amsterdam

Interview with a young scholar, Arjen De Wit, who is participating in the 2014 Social Impact Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, which, incidentally, I am a part of too! I decided to interview Arjen about his research on philanthropy in the Netherlands, USA and any insights he has about the role of philanthropy in both countries in addressing deeper societal issues.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background in terms of philanthropic studies?

There’s two things that have always been attracting me: doing research and improving the world we’re living in. I started a Research Master in Social Sciences after my bachelor Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and a gap year in which I traveled and did some work in journalism. The international and interdisciplinary Master’s program offered me a lot of methodology courses and international contacts.


Photo credit: Arjen de Wit
Photo credit: Arjen de Wit


Q: What is your current research and how did you come to be interested in it?

Arjen : My initial interest was in political trust, but I wanted to focus on a question that is closer to my personal connection with the world surrounding us. After reading the work of two political scientists from Canada on the development aid provided by different welfare states I realized that there might be a trade-off between redistribution strategies of governments and its citizens.


Q. What do you make of the ‘state of philanthropy’ in America?

Arjen: American governments are incredibly stingy concerning international development but, as conservative thinkers continue to emphasize, the levels of their private giving is very high. Why is that? Just culture? Or is there really an effect of government policies on individual behavior?


Q: How did you arrive at your current research topic and what are your key influences, as a scholar?

I switched topics and did a research internship at the Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam, one of the two centers in the Netherlands on philanthropy, the other being the Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy in Rotterdam. At VU University I met René Bekkers, an amazing professor in the field of philanthropy research, who heads the Research department of Philanthropic Studies at VU University. The center is well known for its Giving in Netherlands Panel Study (GINPS). Fortunately the center was able to hire me as a data manager and later as a PhD candidate, so I had the opportunity to further pursue my research interest. My PhD project concerns the crowding-out hypothesis that claims that people increase their contributions to a goal in society when their government cuts budgets on this goal. Findings in this area are highly contradictory and most evidence is found in laboratory experiments where participants make decisions in an artificial environment. In my belief this is not how people in the real world behave.


Q: Tell us a bit more about your work in The Netherlands.

Arjen: Most research on nonprofits and philanthropy is from the United States, and it is the question whether all of the claims that are made in the literature are equally applicable in the United States and in other countries. People in Europe have higher expectations of the government and a lot of services that are private in the US are public in Europe. The Netherlands has a rich history of philanthropy, with for example museums and housing for the poor that are privately founded centuries ago, but ‘Father State’ adopted a lot of these services during the growth of the welfare state after World War II. Our center runs the high-quality Giving in the Netherlands Panel Survey (GINPS) so we are able to come up with evidence-based arguments about philanthropy from a context other than America, which is a huge contribution to the field. We are more than happy to share our data with other students and researchers, by the way.


Q: What is your research agenda, direction of your future work?

Arjen: Besides my PhD I’m working on a variety of related topics including gender differences in giving, social innovation, consequences of volunteering, giving motives and immigrant participation. After finishing my PhD I hope to continue to work on these and other topics with scholars all over the world, in order to do good research and to make the world a better place.




The Art of the Steal and lessons in philanthropy

I watched The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the Barnes Foundation, possibly the greatest private collection of modern art in the world, last night. It was my fourth time watching it and each time I see it, with a different set of friends, I am reminded of a few lessons in philanthropy. But the central tension seems to be  the public vs. private nature of philanthropy’s impact. While the key tension in The Art of Steal is about the execution of Dr. Barnes’ will – that comprised art work worth over $25-$60 billion, and how the city of Philadelphia, with others managed to ‘steal’ it to put it up in a ‘public’ space where everyone could enjoy it, the question of who does art belong to, what is the nature of philanthropy and who is to benefit from it, comes to the fore. The public nature of philanthropy is evident in this strange and perhaps, sad story. In Julian Bond’s words, this is “the scandal in the art world, of the twentieth century.”art-of-the-steal_970x390

While most scholars and practitioners agree that philanthropy, by its being ‘public’ in orientation – in impacting issues in the public domain – can be problematic. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Nonprofit management at University of Pennsylvania argues that this is precisely why it can be effective. “Indeed, one of the central claims of this book is that the special interaction of private values and public interests in philanthropy is what gives giving its distinctive identity and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public sphere,” he says in his book Strategic Giving. Earlier on in the book, Frumkin outlines four positions that philanthropy can take vis-à-vis the government:

  1. Supplementary role – Where if there is overlapping work between the government and private sector, this model would suggest adding funds where the government is falling short
  2. Complementary model – This model envisages division of labor between the parties – government and private sector.
  3. Adversarial model – One in which the private donor/foundation actively takes a position in contrast to that of the government. Think of George Soros in former Soviet Union countries. This position put them in a lot of trouble and effectively got kicked out of Russia, recently.
  4. Autonomous position – Thus taking a position where giving is shielded from government initiatives.

While The Art of Steal does bring up the issues of private wishes of an individual, one question that kept going in my mind was: But isn’t Art supposed to be enjoyed by all and even if it exists in the possession of an individual or an educational institution, should it not be widely available? The counter to that would be that the execution of his will, which stipulated that his art work not be sold, auctioned, rented or otherwise moved, in any way. This may seem a tall order, especially if there are no heirs to this vast wealth and all the trustees of the board can be manipulated or art-twisted. The integrity of one man’s ideas can only last till he is alive or perhaps if he/she has a strong heir who will execute them, after one dies. In the absence of this, there will be manipulation by people, whose interests matter more than the will itself.

photo credit :
photo credit :

This brings us back to the central debates about the private intent of Dr. Barnes, who wished to present his art to the ‘common man’ and not the elite of Philadelphia, versus the contrary claim made by the city of Philadelphia, that argued that since the Art was meant for public consumption and it wasn’t sufficiently being cared for, the city had to step in to take possession of the entire art collection. While the film is definitely made from the perspective of Dr.Barnes and his will, the larger question of the nature of philanthropy and its intended purpose remains (in my understanding) in the grey zone. While the actions of all the officials shown – including those of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mayor of Philadelphia and others seem manipulative, they seem to be genuinely doing what they think is best for the art world. The only problem is that all of this goes against the will of the individual, who owned it. Given how key the notion of private property is to Americans, this is the sin that they commit – trespassing on another man’s will and taking the high moral ground. In this, they also violate the principle of donor intent.

Can the ‘Golden Age of Philanthropy’ Transform America?

As I visited Indianapolis last week to attend the ARNOVA Young Leaders Forum, I met some of the people from Lilly School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school of philanthropy. While the two day meeting was meant as a professional development opportunity, it also served as a way for the young leaders – most of who are PhD students – to network and also listen to some of the leading researchers in the field of philanthropy about the ‘state of philanthropy’ in the U.S.



Incidentally, one of my colleagues also forwarded me a newly released report titled A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons: National Wealth Transfer and Potential for Philanthropy Technical Report released on May 28th by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College points to a new ‘ golden age’ of philanthropy, that could be ushered in, considering the inter-generational wealth transfer of about $59 trillion that is likely to occur in the duration between 2007-2061. I will discuss this briefly, in this blog post. This is the first of a series of blog posts and I will come back to discuss the issues in this post, in subsequent posts.

For the uninitiated, it may help to start off by pointing out that philanthropy is the most American value. As one speaker argued, it is more American than Apple pie – given that more Americans give to organizations than the number who vote or take part in any other social activity. Here are some key highlights about American philanthropy:

–          The average giving by Americans has hovered around 2 % of GDP for the last four decades

–          The total giving (estimated) in the U.S. was about $ 300 billion in 2013, according to Giving USA report

–          Giving to religious institutions has declined over the decades from about half of all giving to only about one-third of all giving in 2013.

Consider a recent story about Detroit in the New York Times that showed that about $ 850 million are needed to rid the city of blight and deprecated buildings. Problems of urban poverty, homelessness are far too big and widespread to be addressed by philanthropy alone. While the figure of $ 300 billion may seem big, when one considers the scale of social problems facing the U.S., this figure is miniscule, compared to the total amount of money needed to ‘fix’ all the problems, provide the poor and vulnerable with services they need and also to invest in the future of the next generation. Philanthropy by itself cannot solve these problems.


How is this relevant ?

While the figure of $59 trillion may seem an impressive one and perhaps transformative, several questions remain unanswered too. Would those who get the bequests actually use this money towards philanthropy or would they hoard wealth? What about the newly wealthy, who may not be inclined to support causes that address social issues, but may in fact veer towards political advocacy or other parochial means of spending their wealth. As the press release for the ‘A Golden Age’ report says: “The study reveals a 12 % increase in this “give while you live” trend since the authors 199 study. Over 55 years, nearly $ 27 trillion are estimated to be given through lifetime giving and a further $ 6.3 trillion through estates and various estate planning approaches.” What is of interest to non-profit professionals in this is that the portfolio of transfers is shifting, according to the authors of the report. One of their conclusions is that the transfer portfolio will include nonprofit organizations, donor advised funds, family foundations as well. This diversification of portfolio is what the authors claim makes this trend in giving transformative.

This report and other similar ones point to one important sociological shift in America: Giving patterns are slowly shifting, though giving has somewhat remained at 2 % of GDP over the last forty years or so. This shift towards ‘giving while living,’ may potentially be a game changer, as the report indicates. And there is good reason to believe this claim. But the hype of philanthropy solving all major societal problems is a very big claim that is not substantiated by facts, as the example of Detroit above shows. While I believe in the power of philanthropy to have a transformative effect in certain niche areas, the claims being made in many cases are outright exaggerations.