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.
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.