August 2018: A Review of Recent Ethnographic-ish Studies on Philanthropy

By Amelia Aldred

Welcome back to the Philanthropologist! For this month, we will review four different studies on philanthropy, all of which incorporate ethnographic interviewing and analysis in their research.  The studies include a more traditional participant-observation study on people who straddle the “recipient/nonprofit worker” divide, a corporate interview project with high net worth philanthropists, and sociological mapping project on Latin American philanthropic organizations.

Are you interested in culture and philanthropy?  Would you like to share your knowledge on The Philanthropologist?  If so, we invite you to get in contact!

Study 1:  Erica Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 2016

Erica Kohl-Arenas currently serves as the Faculty Director of Imagining America at the University of California, Davis, where she is also an associate professor in the Department of American Studies. Her primary research areas include studies of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, participatory development, and the intersection of American and global poverty studies.  Her book analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley, including the push by foundations, beginning in the 1990s, for collaboration between nonprofits and farmworkers.

Dr. Kohl-Arenas conducted ethnographic interviews with nonprofit workers and farmworkers in Central Valley and participant-observation at foundation and nonprofit meetings, as well as doing archival research.  In addition to studying philanthropy as practiced by state-recognized nonprofits and foundations, Dr. Kohl-Arenas also studied philanthropy as practiced by farmworkers through mutual systems of support. The common narrative that emerges from farmworkers/activists that are involved in formal nonprofit work is that the structure and values of foundations dampen farmworkers’ ability to address the root cause of their poverty: the exploitation of vulnerable workers by their agribusiness employers. Dr. Kohl-Arenas examines the tension and negotiation between foundation boards, nonprofit employees, and farmworker communities that results from different theories of change and power differentials.

The book is an excellent resource for people interested in critical reflection on the philanthropic sector and the role of nonprofit workers as intermediaries and gatekeepers between foundations and the foundation’s intended recipients.

A review of the book is available through both Philanthropy News Digest (free access) and the Anthropology of Work Review.  For more of Dr. Kohl-Arenas’s analysis and critique of foundation philanthropy in the United States, you can read her blog post from July 2015.

Study 2: Anant Bhagwati, Arpan Sheth, Deval Sanghavi and Srikrishnan Srinivasan. The India Philanthropy Report 2018 (Mumbai, India: Bain & Company, 2018).

This is the eighth edition of a report on philanthropy by wealthy Indians (including non-resident Indians, or NRIs) conducted by Bain & Company, one of the Big Three global management consultancies,  in partnership with DASRA, one of India’s largest philanthropic foundations.  The researchers used in-depth interviews with about 30 philanthropists and focused on interviewees’ mindset and attitudes towards philanthropy, as well as their behaviors.  The researchers are all partners and managers at the Bain & Company Mumbai office.

The report presents data in the form of case studies and includes explicit calls to action from the researchers to wealthy Indian philanthropists, which is keeping with the report’s context as a management consultancy project. The researchers at Bain & Company encourage philanthropists to treat their giving as investments and use the tools of investors, such as regular portfolio reviews and goal-setting.

A common theme that emerges from the case studies is the desire by wealthy philanthropists to both “amplify efficacy of giving” and “amplify their effectiveness beyond monetary contributions.”  This desire led interviewees to engage more directly with both the grantees (including both nonprofits and program consumers) and with other philanthropists and strategists in the philanthropic sector.  The idea of effective giving and increased donor engagement with recipient organizations is a common theme in the U.S. philanthropic sector; while the case studies were interesting, I wished that the researchers focused more on the unique aspects of Indian philanthropy and why philanthropists are changing their approach to giving.  In addition, it was difficult to distinguish between ethnographic data on donor behavior and management advice for recommended behavior. For example, Bain & Company highlights “four mindsets that, if adopted, can enable full philanthropic potential” and illustrates those mindsets through various case studies, but it was not clear whether those case studies were meant to be representative of common mindsets or if they represented rare behaviors that the researchers wanted to be more widely adopted.

Nonetheless, the report would be useful to fundraisers who are interested in engaging high net worth individuals in India because it provides an example of the messages and advice that is circulating among philanthropic players in that country.  High-profile management consultants and wealth managers can play a significant role in philanthropic decision-making so it is important that fundraisers stay abreast on current conversations within those industries.

The report is available on the Bain & Company website (free access).

Study 3: Guayana Paez-Acosta. A Look at Organizations Supporting Philanthropy in Latin America and the Caribbean. (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support [WINGS], 2018).

Guayana Páez-Acosta is a sociologist with an MSc. in Environment and Sustainable Development from the University of London; she has worked with international organizations, private foundations and research centers in Latin America and the United States. Her current research focuses on  Latin America, philanthropy, and sustainable development.  Her report maps the ecosystem of formalized organizations that support the philanthropic sector in Latin America and the Caribbean; as part of her mapping project, Dr. Páez-Acosta interviewed board members and employees of 40 organizations on their motivations, attitudes, values, and desires regarding philanthropy.
The report especially focuses on what resources interviewees considered most needed by philanthropic organizations and how interviewees ranked those needs.  The following table is the results of Dr. Páez-Acosta’s interviews. Note: the % indicates the proportion of responses received for each case, as priority level 1. The order 1-5 results from the higher percentage received as #1, and the lower percentage, #5

Priorities to Strengthen the Philanthropic Sector

Priority Areas


1. More favorable legal framework 1 (63%)
2. Increase donor base 2 (55%)
3. Work that is more relevant vis-à-vis local, national or regional topics/ challenges 3 (39%)
4. Improve technical capacities for monitoring and evaluating impact 4 (34%)
5. Mechanisms for protection of civil society in general 5 (33%)

Source: Páez-Acosta, Guayana 2017. Data processing of “Initial Mapping of Philanthropy Support Organizations

There is scarce documentation on Latin America and Caribbean philanthropic organizations, so this report is an excellent resource for fundraisers in the region who want to familiarize themselves with the major players and better understand the sector’s needs.

The report is available through Issues Lab (free access).

About the Author:

Amelia Aldred is a lead analyst on the prospect research team at the University of Chicago and the administrator of The Philanthropologist.  Amelia specializes in international and arts fundraising and has taught seminars on international philanthropy, industrial research, and internal communications at CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education)  and APRA (Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement). For more information about Amelia’s nonprofit experience, click here.

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