News analysis: Balance of academic and practical

The Centre for Charity Research and Philanthropy has had a mixed reception, as John Plummer discovers.

Cass Business School
Cass Business School

By spring, the Centre for Charitable Research and Philanthropy should be operational. The centre boasts four heavyweight funders providing £2.2m over three years and has recruited respected academics to lead the research. But will it make much difference to fundraisers?

Fundraising experts have their doubts. Professor Adrian Sargeant, chair of fundraising at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and professor of non-profit marketing at Bristol Business School, fears the exercise is drifting too closely into the realms of academia rather than the issues that matter to fundraisers, such as how to retain donors and increase legacies.

Joe Saxton, chair of the Institute of Fundraising, is disappointed at how little input fundraisers have had in the venture. "The people involved don't have clear links with fundraising research," he says. "Fundraisers want good research, but I don't think anybody other than aficionados is holding their breath. The research centre has everything to play for in terms of demonstrating how effective it can be."

The Economic and Social Research Council, the Carnegie UK Trust, the Scottish Government and the Office of the Third Sector agreed to fund the centre last year (Third Sector, 4 October 2006). Consultation took place this year, and last month Jenny Harrow, professor of voluntary sector management at London's Cass Business School, was appointed director of the centre (Third Sector, 7 November). Charity researcher Cathy Pharoah is co-director.

The two will run the centre's hub, which will coordinate three strands of research into individual and business giving, institutionalised giving structures and charitable giving and social redistribution. The centre won't have a building - research will take place at the three institutions where the academics who lead each programme work, and will be co-ordinated by Harrow and Pharoah.

Each programme, and the hub, will be separately accountable to the Economic and Social Research Council, which is the lead funding body. A steering group, chaired by sector academic Nicholas Deakin, will oversee matters.

In joint written answers to questions submitted by Third Sector, Harrow and Pharoah say fundraisers were consulted on the plans and that the research will support the work they do. "We have little understanding of how to increase participation in giving and levels of giving," they say. "Giving as a share of national expenditure has remained pretty static over the last 20 years. Yes, more research on fundraising techniques might help to increase giving, but it is also likely to be important to raise the game in other ways as well - for example, by increasing the general understanding within society of the role, impact and importance of giving.

"Philanthropy in all its forms is rooted in people's values and beliefs, and we hope that the centre will have an important role in raising awareness and changing or confirming attitudes in support of its development and growth." Research, they say, will analyse what influences the climate within which fundraising takes place, look at the effectiveness of philanthropy as a way of addressing social needs and consider the efficiency of grant making. They say the hub will also disseminate "important findings in relation to increasing giving, and participation in giving, from some of the very big programmes of research carried out in other countries".

So what will be the measure of success? "The centre will have been successful if in five years time there is greater awareness and understanding of the role and impact of philanthropy among the various stakeholders," say Harrow and Pharoah.

They add that the centre will aim to develop training in philanthropy research so there will be doctoral students attached to the three research programme whose PhD projects will focus on research in giving. "We hope this will be very successful and are keen to support the development of young researchers in academic and practice settings," they say.

A spokeswoman for the ESRC says the centre's remit was chosen after key stakeholders from academic, charity and government sectors were consulted. "This is just one of the opportunities available to support researchers, and we would encourage those who feel there is a need for research in a specific area to submit their own grant applications." she says.

Not all fundraisers are pessimistic. Mark Astarita, director of fundraising at the British Red Cross, sees the centre as a way of lessening the sector's dependency on "dodgy opinion polls" and the sometimes contradictory results of research conducted by the likes of the NCVO and the Charities Aid Foundation. "Anything that adds rigour and vigour has to be welcomed," he says.

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