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ERNOP 2019: Philanthropy research in the Swiss capital of foundations

The 9th edition of the ERNOP conference  took place at the University of Basel and started with a warm welcome from Georg von Schnurbein, introducing everyone to Basel; the city with one of the highest densities of foundations. The history of philanthropy in Basel is rich and encompasses much more than just the support of art collections. Von Schnurbein concluded with a relevant statement on the current state of the research field. Being critical about your own topic of interest is a sign of scientific maturity of the discipline. In philanthropy research, this milestone has been reached. And, finally, in case the debates would get too hot, everyone was advised to have a swim in the Rhine!

Keynote speaker prof. dr. Rob Reich continued with a keynote on the dark side of philanthropy as challenging justice and democracy. Zooming in on foundations, Reich argued they are often unaccountable, low in transparency, donor-directed, perpetual and tax advantaged. He proposes a forward looking approach. Even if the money is legitimately earned,  when do we consider philanthropy as something good? Philanthropy should not be about being the most effective, but about striving towards a goal that in itself is evaluated as good for society. The advantage of philanthropy over the state or the market is that it does not have to be restricted by short-term accountability. We should therefore think of philanthropy as a field that can invest in long-term innovation. Reich certainly touched upon some important issues, as a vivid debate followed.

In the second keynote speech, prof. dr. Pamala Wiekping pointed the audience towards the bright side of philanthropy. Philanthropy is not just about the rich white men spending large amounts of money, but it is also about small acts of giving by women, men and children all over the world. All these acts contribute to a more generous society. Until now most research focuses on North America or Europe. Survey measures of giving do not capture all forms of philanthropy and do not take into account cultural differences. Wiepking has the ambition to use a comparative, interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to study philanthropy on a global scale.

On the first day of the conference scholars from various national and disciplinary backgrounds presented their papers covering a wide variety of topics. Sessions ranged from macro perspectives on philanthropy to case studies in China and Israel. The high temperatures did not withhold anyone from providing valuable recommendations,  contributing to interesting discussions and gaining new insights. The first day ended with drinks, music and dinner at a daring location. The restaurant is part of a project to improve this former industrial site by starting new initiatives in the area.

On Friday the conference continued with the final sessions. After having discussed the dark and bright sides of philanthropy, keynote speaker Lynda Manssons talked about ‘what philanthropy really is’. Lynda Manssons is Director General of MAVA, fondation pour la nature. MAVA was founded in 1994 by Luc Hoffmann and the foundation’s mission is to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity. The MAVA foundation is a special case as Luc Hoffman planned to close the foundation in 2022. Lynda informed the audience on the struggles and the advantages related to closing a foundation and how they are working on building a community of actors which lasts even when the foundation is gone.

Bojana Radovanovic from the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory of the University of Belgrade received the ERNOP Best Conference Paper Award for her work on conceptualizing and measuring philanthropy in Serbia. With her paper she provides new insights in the rate of formal as well as informal philanthropy in Serbia. Radovanovic contributes to the scarce amount of research on philanthropy that is done outside of Western Europe, making her paper of great significance for the discipline.

After lunch and farewell drinks in the lovely courtyard of the University of Basel the conference ended with a sunny philanthropic city tour. Did you know that with the building of new bridges, the ferries in Basel were almost abandoned? Due to the establishment of a foundation the ferries still operate.

Thanks to the University of Basel, the Center for Philanthropy Studies and the ERNOP board we could all enjoy an interesting and well-organized conference. We are very much looking forward to the next edition at the Sutherland School of Law in Dublin, Ireland on July 1-2, 2021!