Discovery for All: The philanthropic promise of higher education


Familiar accounts of philanthropy in education focus on fundraising campaigns and impressively large gifts that mostly go to already well-resourced institutions. More recently, a bit more attention and funding have been going to institutions that cater to the majority of Americans (community colleges) or that were created for those who have been routinely excluded from the mainstream (HBCUs). But as philanthropic dollars support individuals, institutions, and policy ideas in higher education, there is a more subtle way in which philanthropy and education are connected at their very foundations. This is the promise that higher education is something that should be open to all, and that such participation and knowledge sharing would in turn advance the frontiers of human knowledge more rapidly.

When my daughter was accepted to a “fancy” college on the East Coast, a family friend accustomed to most people staying in Indiana for college asked what she was going to study. When she answered, “History” our friend asked, “Don’t they teach that in Indiana?” 

His question keeps resonating as I think of the promise of higher education and how it remains vibrant for so many, but unfulfilled for even more. The higher education experience comprises many things that enhance people’s lives in terms of higher incomes, better health, and even greater happiness. But it is also an idea, an opportunity to engage the frontiers of human discovery that should be available to all. All that the human mind can conceive and its inventions depend on minds being usefully connected to each other. This sharing should not be limited to a few or reserved for those with special status or lineage. No one should need to travel to New Haven and participate in arcane rituals of a private club to be more fully included in the festival of human knowledge.

This is the true wonder of the mosaic of opportunities presented by the American system of higher education. It presumes, sometimes naively, that wherever you start you are participating in the same extended fellowship of discovery that yields awe-inspiring inventions like the one depicted in the movie Oppenheimer. The tweedy club of physicists and other scientists we see in the movie is, in principle, open to any student who applies themself, has the curiosity and perseverance to acquire knowledge, and has access to a community of inquiry that will support them.

Yet the reality is disappointing. Open discovery for all is reserved for only a minority of our populace, though of the 51.7% of Americans without a postsecondary certification about 15% have completed some college. Our young leaders express what the data reveal. The moral sensibilities of our emerging generation lead them to call our most renowned universities “fancy” schools because they do cater to the wealthy, and part of their elevated status is a result of how “highly selective” they are, which means that they exclude the vast majority of applicants.

This generation’s leaders are concerned about the lack of urgency with which the most advanced of advanced institutions of higher learning are responding to the crises of our current moment. Student leaders at these elite institutions have urged philanthropists to look elsewhere to get things done. The moral intuition of our progeny, many of whom are embarrassed by the hierarchies we maintain in higher education, demands our attention.

Jonathan Zimmerman has written a wonderful piece on “Higher Ed’s Founding Promise” to accompany the latest release of the Washington Monthly guide that ranks colleges on their contribution to the public good. There are many good reasons to open the experience of a higher education to all, including equality of opportunity in a democratic society, bringing in a more diverse range of perspectives to counter the insular thinking that can grip an entrenched elite, or to raise the productive potential of workers. But another key reason is that expanding how many people engage in discovery elevates the higher education enterprise itself and enhances all the good it can do for the public.

The philanthropic element of education involves sharing knowledge and intentionally thinking together in ways that enable discovery. Wanting others to connect their thinking with ours and offering ours to them in a spirit of joint discovery is how science and knowledge progress. In the past when literacy and learning were limited to special segments of society or exclusive clubs, social stagnation was usually the norm as the powerful used their control of knowledge to sustain the status quo. The openness of a democratic system with a shared regard for laws that respect every person’s dignity and freedom to engage the world has led to the ongoing inventiveness of societies that consistently generate new technologies and ways of implementing them.

In Oppenheimer we see professors gathered to create a terrifying new weapon. The story depicts human ingenuity advancing under duress at what was an existential moment for world history and possibly our planet. One doesn’t often see higher education represented as such a consequential element of our common existence, or intellectual debates affecting weighty affairs of state.

Discovery is truly awesome, and in the movie we see a deliberate community formed to engage in a monumental project, pushing the very frontier of what humans had discovered about the physical world. What less than 80 years ago were scientific insights freshly imagined by a few giants of science are now available to anyone who applies themselves in a community of learning. Despite significant expansion since Oppenheimer was a professor, the number of Americans who have acquired the level of knowledge to confidently engage his successors finds itself at a plateau of about half of the population. None of this is to say that an actual credential should be required for all, but the knowledge and skills offered by a degree should be more accessible than they currently are.

So how do we move beyond this plateau? The answer is unlikely to result from more elaborate arguments about how more minds in higher education will advance the entire enterprise and everyone’s quality of life. It will more likely come from a more pragmatic approach, a strong vein in American history: the idea of doing while learning, applying advanced knowledge to create new inventions and to make awesome things happen.

Knowledge advances best when it is shared the most and when we come together to do things with it. What will you do with what you learn and who will you do it with?

Esteemed scholars join faculty, earn promotion

From left to right: Michael Moody, Young-joo Lee, and Tyrone McKinley Freeman.

Two highly respected philanthropy scholars—Michael Moody and Young-joo Lee—have joined the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy faculty, and a third faculty member Tyrone McKinley Freeman advanced to a new role.

Tyrone McKinley Freeman, a trail-blazing scholar and historian who researches African-American charitable giving and activism, has been appointed the Glenn Family Chair in Philanthropy. He also is an associate professor of philanthropic studies and adjunct associate professor of Africana studies at IU Indianapolis.

Freeman’s work invites rethinking of traditional views of philanthropy as an arena reserved for wealthy elites and reconsideration of what philanthropy is and who can engage in it, as well as how African-American communities are understood and represented. His innovative research combines history, philanthropic studies, Africana studies and the humanities to increase understanding of African-American philanthropy, philanthropy in communities of color and the history of American philanthropy. Freeman’s book Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow examines African American women’s history of charitable giving, activism, education and social service provision through the life and example of Madam C.J. Walker, the early 20th century Black philanthropist and entrepreneur.

Expanding awareness of African-American philanthropy through writing and public speaking nationwide, Freeman is Research Associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where he supports the History of African American Fundraising Collecting Initiative, the Giving in America exhibit and other projects. He received the international Dan David Prize, the “world’s largest history prize,” for ground-breaking research on African American philanthropy. He was awarded an IU Presidential Arts and Humanities Fellowship for contributions to the study of philanthropy using history and the humanities and was inducted into IU’s Faculty Academy for Excellence in Teaching.

Young-joo Lee, Ph.D., has been named the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy and Professor of Philanthropic Studies. Lee’s research examines women’s leadership in the nonprofit sector, including the factors behind the gender gap in nonprofit leadership, the consequences of that gap, and how it can be closed. She studies the underrepresentation of women as leaders at large nonprofit organizations, the overrepresentation of women in the philanthropic sector overall, and women’s representation in higher education.

Lee is a prolific and widely cited organizational theory and behavior scholar whose research centers on nonprofit governance and management, volunteerism, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Her latest research examines the implications of intersectionality and marginalization for philanthropy and why it is important to take intersectionality into account when studying gender and philanthropy. Lee’s research has been widely cited globally and she is an active contributor to the nonprofit research community. She is an associate editor of Nonprofit Management and Leadership and Public Administration Review and serves on the editorial board of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly and International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing.

At the school, Lee will conduct new research to advance understanding of women’s leadership and differences in the way women and men think about and practice philanthropy. She will teach philanthropic studies courses, including a class on women and philanthropy. She previously was Professor and Nonprofit Management Director in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida.

Americans are generally positive about charitable giving and nonprofits, know little about philanthropy

At a time when there is concern about public confidence in society’s institutions, Americans have a broadly favorable impression of charitable giving and nonprofit organizations, but many know relatively little about how philanthropy functions, its impact on their lives, or how its current controversies could shape the future, a new study from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds.

The report, What Americans Think About Philanthropy and Nonprofits, examines public awareness, attitudes and perceptions of philanthropy, philanthropic sector institutions, and policies that govern and affect charitable giving. It is based on a nationally representative survey of 1,334 adults conducted in summer 2022. The research is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Americans see philanthropic giving as valuable: more than three-quarters of those surveyed feel that society as whole benefits a large or moderate amount when Americans donate money to charity. About 80% said that in-kind giving (i.e., giving property such as clothes, household items, or a vehicle to a nonprofit), giving money to a qualified 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and direct person-to-person giving were very or somewhat important. Three out of four felt that mutual aid was very or somewhat important.

The study also explored how aware and knowledgeable the public is about various philanthropic entities. In general, less than one in three respondents said they were familiar with any of the philanthropic entities listed, which included private, community and corporate foundations; crowdfunding campaigns; limited liability companies; donor-advised funds; giving circles; and impact investing.

A plurality of respondents was familiar with community foundations (37.3%), followed by crowdfunding campaigns (31.2%). On the other end of the spectrum, fewer than one in 10 indicated familiarity with giving circles (7.9%) or impact investing (6.6%). Larger percentages said they had “heard of” many of these charitable entitles, although they lacked a sense of familiarity with them.

Levels of trust in all three sectors of society are low but the plurality (39.0%) of respondents said they trusted nonprofits completely or very much, the highest response for any of the institutions in the survey. The public also has a high level of confidence (76.5%) in the ability of the philanthropic sector to solve problems. Still, one quarter or less of respondents said any philanthropic sector entity asked about in the survey was completely or very transparent. Less than 12% of those surveyed saw private foundations, corporations and high-net-worth individual donors as very or completely transparent in their giving practices.

Survey respondents found value in both large and small financial contributions. They preferred the idea of smaller donations from many donors when directly contrasted with larger donations from the wealthiest Americans. But when asked about both types of giving separately, they seemed to feel that big gifts can have a bigger impact and thus may perceive them as being more important to American society broadly.

Read the report.