Published: August 2015

Email Exchange #1

From Dr. Soskis:

I wanted to run a funding opportunity by you in the history of philanthropy field.

Last week, Peter Dobbin Hall, one of the elder statesmen of the field of civil society research and the history of philanthropy in particular, passed away. His work on the deep origins of what we now call the nonprofit sector–on questions of tax policy and systems of trusteeship, etc–had a significant impact on me and on most of the other scholars in the field.

ARNOVA, the big scholarly organization dedicated to the study of civil society, philanthropy and volunteerism, has been talking about ways to honor Hall’s legacy, and one of those ways will probably be some sort of fellowship or book/article prize..

I wonder if this might present an opportunity for the Open Phil Project–to fund or supplement such an award. My thinking is that it would probably take a relatively small financial commitment, but most of the legwork would be done by ARNOVA itself–sifting through applications, publicizing the award, etc. They really are the major institutional player out there, though historians have often been crowded out by social scientists (one reason why I haven’t been much involved). And if they are committed to doing something anyway–which I think they are–and there is going to be at least one book or article award on philanthropy history in operation, it might be more efficient for it to supplemented by you guys, as opposed to trying to set up an independent one later on (if that is a direction you decide you might want to go in).

From Open Philanthropy Project:

What do you think is the most likely result of our funding a book/article prize? Do you think ARNOVA would set a topic that would be useful/of interest to us?

If so, do you have any sense of (a) the amount of money this would require and (b) the number of submissions that would likely come in?

From Dr. Soskis:

At issue here is the importance of distinguishing between two aims: growing the academic field of the history of philanthropy and supporting work in the history of philanthropy that will be of use to the Open Philanthropy Project, Good Ventures, and other funders. There is definitely significant overlap and convergence between these two objectives–a stronger academic field will result in more work, and in more scholars, that could potentially be of use. But, of course, the convergence isn’t perfect and it is hard to determine precisely the boundaries between the two efforts. For that reason, in terms of work that Open Phil might fund, I’m most comfortable with the second category–work that directly wrestles with questions of impact or operational questions that could help contemporary funders.

The ARNOVA prize/fellowship would almost certainly be in the first category: i.e., it would produce work of indeterminate short-term use to Good Ventures. But I do think it happens to be an outstanding opportunity to help grow the field, and so that’s why I brought it up.

I think Open Phil could insist that the prize/fellowship be targeted specifically to the history of philanthropy (and this would make sense, because of Peter Dobbin Hall’s own work). I’m not sure if it would make sense to get any more definite than this (i.e., to require work that specifically addressed questions of impact), mostly because as far as I know, Hall himself didn’t have an overriding interest in impact evaluation. But this is something i could certainly ask about. As I mentioned, I’m friends with the ARNOVA president and don’t mind having a candid conversation about what sort of specifications would interest Open Phil. But a question that you will have to think over is whether you would still be interested if the terms of the prize/fellowship were broad, within the general history of philanthropy field. That means that much of the work produced through the prize/fellowship would not be directly useful to you. It would likely produce much pure, and not applied, research so to speak.

ARNOVA’s reach is pretty wide and I think if Open Phil did sponsor something thought them, the word would get out more effectively than if you tried to do it on your own (through word of mouth, say). It’s hard for me to predict how many submissions you would get, since i’ve never been on a prize committee and this would also depend on the level of the prize amount. But it would represent a high-profile offering and so it would not only offer a monetary inducement but also ARNOVA”s name and academic cred. Which is to say–though I’m not sure of an actual number, I think doing a prize through ARNOVA would maximize whatever that number could be, based on the pool of possible scholars out there. (And how big that pool is, and could be, is exactly one of the questions I’m hoping to learn more about through the blog and the Open Phil Project).

In terms of how much the prize would have to be–if you are still interested, I can do some digging on that. Most academic prizes I know of are relatively modest, in the $5000 range. A few are more . I also think that ARNOVA would raise money themselves, so maybe it could be structured as a matching gift to bolster how much they brought it.

From Dr. Soskis:

Actually, I just got the email about some of the details of how ARNOVA’s other prizes are managed. The one that I think is the closest model to how a book/article prize might be structured is their dissertation award, which was endowed with a gift of $20K. Another donor then gives $500 a year to make the annual prize $1000. I think this is an appropriate amount for a ARNOVA book/article prize. I don’t think you would have to go over $2000.

Email Exchange #2

From Open Philanthropy Project:

Do you think that the prize will solicit papers that will be useful/interesting to us?

On what topics do you expect to see papers submitted?

Will ARNOVA eventually publish all the papers/make them available somewhere or will only the winner be available?

Response from Dr. Soskis:

I think it’s very unlikely that historians of philanthropy will produce papers/articles that precisely match what you guys are most interested–ie, direct investigations of impact–without specific guidance and instruction to do so. So the papers or books that would likely be considered for the award would on some level be considerably less helpful than an extended case-study. On the other hand, I do think there is a strong chance of the material submitted for the award being *indirectly* helpful, in the sense that additional research on the field–and especially in primary sources–can be applied to those case studies. They form the basis of the secondary literature that we have been consulting in order to construct more in-depth considerations of impact. So on the whole, I think this represents a good investment in the quality of the scholarship surrounding the history of philanthropy more generally, which will give a definite if indirect boost to the quality of the material available on the history of philanthropic impact.

2) I think that there would be an open call for the best paper/book on the history of (American?) philanthropy. Usually, these sorts of prizes are restricted to published sources (there are often separate prizes for best unpublished essay, usually for grad students and college students). So that begs the question of what the actual “impact” of the prize itself might be. Most of the material submitted would have seen the light of day anyway, I think, though it’s quite possible that the fact of the prize would galvanize a scholar to whip a paper (not a book, of course) into shape for publication. That’s just conjectural and it would be hard to put a hard value on that impact.

There is also the likelihood that the prize raises the visibility of the field of the history of philanthropy, and will lead scholars to consider research in the field that they might have not previously, and would seed future research projects, books and articles. Of course, again, all this would be difficult to prove with any degree of rigor, but I feel relatively confident in its likelihood that I think a modest grant is a worthwhile investment.

In terms of the sorts of topics that would be submitted, I think they would run the gamut of the types of scholarship that the field now offers. There would almost definitely be some micro-studies of philanthropic initiatives, probably the scholarship that would interest us the most. There would also be studies and books about the way that philanthropy shaped and was shaped by broader social, cultural and economic forces (with plenty of attention placed on gender and race). In other words, I’m not sure this prize would dramatically reshape the kinds of scholarship out there–I think it would improve its quality.

3) Since most of the submissions would be published beforehand, they would be visible to us–and the prize submissions would be a good way of learning about the work that is out there. I’m not sure what the deal would be with unpublished papers submitted; often these are on the way to being published at some point, so they too would probably see the light of day. But some might not, and we might be able to work with ARNOVA to make sure that Open Philanthropy could take a look at them as well.

The bottom line is that I think a relatively small grant for ARNOVA to start a prize in memory of one of the foremost historians of philanthropy would be a relatively safe investment for Open Philanthropy. I don’t think it would revolutionize the field, but I’m confident that it would boost the visibility and status of the history of philanthropy and would lead to more scholars committing themselves to it, and more quality work being produced.