In the early days of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, there was some optimism among fundraisers that it would produce the kind of research that met their practical needs.
One reason to be cheerful was that Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, was invited by the centre's funders to sit on its advisory board. Another was that Adrian Sargeant, a leading fundraising academic, was asked by the Government to suggest which topics the centre should research. Online donor behaviour and donor loyalty and retention were among the subjects he proposed.
There were further grounds for optimism in the wording of the document given to universities applying to be part of the centre. "A key aim of the research programme should include encouraging the translation of research into policy and practice," it said.
As decision time approached in 2007, bids arrived for the £2.2m of funding from the Office of the Third Sector, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Carnegie UK Trust. Sargeant says his academic base, Bristol Business School, was prevented by ESRC rules from applying.
Towards the end of that year it was decided by a commissioning panel made up of funders, academics and user groups that the funding would be allocated to five institutions, using a ‘hub and spokes' model used by the ESRC in the past. Cass Business School in London became the ‘hub', receiving up to £300,000 over five years, and the ‘spokes' were the universities of Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Kent and Southampton, each receiving up to £500,000 over the same period.
Once these universities had been designated, no other universities or groups were able to receive funding from the centre. Professor Cathy Pharoah and Professor Jenny Harrow were appointed co-directors of the centre. From this point onwards, Pharoah says, the centre's decisions, including the allocation of the remaining money, were made by the funders with advice from the advisory board.
The participant universities were told they could use the funding to pay for IT systems, administrative support and research facilities, and they had to agree to do research on ‘individual and business giving', ‘charitable giving and social redistribution' and ‘institutionalised giving structures'.
The research duly got under way. In the event, funding went to some projects that have obvious relevance to the practice of fundraising. "An exploration of how companies choose their charity of the year" was one study; another was "Research into committed donors to discuss how they personally decide what to support".
Others have less obvious relevance: Strathclyde is looking at "understanding current challenges to traditional patterns of giving" and "looking at how we recognise social returns on charitable investment", and Southampton is investigating "whether charitable activity might mitigate or reinforce social and economic inequalities".
As time went on, Boswell and others in the fundraising community became frustrated by what they saw as a lack of responsiveness to their concerns - particularly over the allocation of the £600,000 of the funding that has not yet been allocated to research projects.
The Fundraising Standards Board and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association were among those that publicly backed Sargeant's call this summer for the sum to be allocated to projects of practical use to fundraisers.
Boswell's resignation earlier this month raised the questions that had been lurking since the centre was set up. Was it fair for the Government to spend so much money on a giving and philanthropy research project that was not obliged to help fundraisers specifically? Had fundraisers been mistaken from the start to expect practical help from a body that had explicitly defined itself in its founding document as "academic"?
The OTS and the ESRC issued brief statements thanking Boswell for his contribution and asserting that the centre's work would continue to be take fundraising into account. Pressed for more detail, the ESRC eventually issued a longer statement suggesting fundraisers had been wrong to expect much in the way of specific, practical help.
The centre's work was "designed to answer the big questions about giving that will help many different groups, including volunteering organisations, investment institutions, foundations and trusts", the statement said. "Beneficiaries of the centre's research include fundraisers, but it is not exclusively focused on that group."
Tempers have frayed on both sides of the argument, which reflects a wider conflict: university lecturers marched on Parliament earlier this week to protest about plans by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to encourage academic research with "demonstrable benefits" to society and the economy. They argued that universities should be "set free to pursue pure academic research".
David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations and another member of the centre's advisory board, is on the side of the academics. "There needs to be a belief in the integrity of academia," he says. "Funders can't tell universities what to research in exchange for funding; that just isn't how it works."
But he admits the centre failed to communicate this clearly from the start. "If it had been properly explained from the beginning, this whole argument wouldn't have broken out," he says.
But Boswell is making a wider point. The whole process through which the cash was given out, he said, was flawed. "In essence, the centre allowed academics to choose what would be of use," he says. "What they should have done was to complete a mapping exercise of the research that already existed, drawn up a priority list for further research and given the money to people who could carry out that research. Instead, they gave it to academics to use as they wished."
This idea of a mapping exercise and a priority list will underpin the institute's proposed new think tank, announced after Boswell's resignation.
Meanwhile, the use of the unallocated £600,000 of public money has not been finalised. Pharoah says:'Proposals for the Centre's remaining funds are currently being assessed. As this is a rigorous process aimed at ensuring that only the highest quality research is funded, decisions will not be announced until early spring 2010.'