Non-Profit and Philanthropy:

Center Hosts Academic Symposium on Philanthropy and Social Impact

April 19, 2019

The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy hosted 65 scholars from across North America for an academic symposium in mid-March that examined how philanthropy, nonprofits and social innovation can advance social impact.

Pictured: Peter Frumkin, University of Pennsylvania, Jack Meyers, Rockefeller Archive Center, Shena Ashley, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, and James Ferris. (Photo by David Giannamore. Full set of images from March 14th found here.)

Conference organizers James M. Ferris, Director of The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, and Elizabeth Graddy, Executive Vice Provost of the University of Southern California and professor at the Price School, said they had been thinking about hosting a symposium for several years. “There have been too few opportunities for the scholarly community to come together and take stock of the intellectual developments around philanthropy and social change,” Graddy observed.

Ferris and Graddy organized the symposium around three critical questions: what have those studying philanthropy and social change learned over the last twenty years, where are the most prominent gaps and challenges in research, and what are the more promising avenues for future research? Scholars from different disciplines – public administration and policy, history, economics, sociology, political science and management – took on these questions and more across three themed plenaries.

Pictured: Elizabeth Graddy, USC Price School; Christine Beckman, USC Price School;Queen’s University’s Tina Dacin, Queen’s University; Michelle Shumate, Northwestern University (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan. Full set of images from March 15th found here.)

For scholars Peter Frumkin, University of Pennsylvania, Jack Meyers, Rockefeller Archive Center and Shena Ashley, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute – who each participated in the opening panel on philanthropic strategy and scaling impact, academia hasn’t progressed very far in its understanding. They each had their own take on why this was true, including the narrowness of the information gleaned from the Form 990-PF (a required federal tax filing), the ceding of strategy conversations to consultants, and the inaccessibility of foundation board records and other decision-related data. Yet, panelists agreed on one key research challenge: quantifying the social impact of philanthropy as a dependent variable.

The plenary on the power of networks and collaboration and the role of philanthropy, featuring USC’s Christine Beckman, Queen’s University’s Tina Dacin and Northwestern University’s Michelle Shumate, suggested that the most successful impact networks are not a forced march of partners, but instead are open and flexible and allow the network to develop more naturally. Funders can act as network orchestrators by taking a step back from day-to-day network operations, allowing relationships. Researchers, for their part, can seek to better understand networks by thinking creatively about research design, including both participatory and observational methods.

Pictured: Nicole Esparza, USC Price School; Brayden King, Northwestern University; Patricia Strach, State University of New York; Edward Walker, UCLA. (Photo by Shavered Yan Photography. Full set of images from March 16th found here.)

The concluding plenary, featuring Northwestern University’s Brayden King, State University of New York’s Patricia Strach and UCLA’s Edward Walker, unpacked how social and political movements develop and intersect with philanthropy, government and communities. Some key factors for moving from a “moment to a movement” are ensuring that it is viewed as authentic and creating a supportive nonprofit infrastructure that can sprout and support grassroots movements. Critical to understanding movements is working backwards from what social movements have achieved – whether that is the Civil Rights movement or the more recent Me Too movement – to how they began and what led to their success.

In addition to the three plenaries, 34 scholars presented original research on philanthropy and social impact, selected following a call for papers issued in fall 2018. The papers included new research on the implications of strategic philanthropy, how foundations can act as intermediaries in the policy-making process, the role philanthropy plays in immigration policy, impact investing and network-building among other topics. The full program, which includes the papers presented at the symposium, can be found on The Center’s website, along with videos of each of the plenaries.

The intimate, interdisciplinary symposium helps to kick off a series of events The Center has planned to celebrate its 20th anniversary.  “The theme – philanthropy and social impact – has been at the heart of the Center’s work for two decades,” USC Sol Price School Dean Jack Knott noted in opening remarks that also highlighted the Sol Price School’s ongoing celebration of its 90th anniversary this coming year.

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Nicholas Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at or (213) 740-8557.


Related faculty

  • James M. Ferris

    Emery Evans Olson Chair in Non-Profit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy
    Director, Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy

  • Elizabeth Graddy

    Jeffrey J. Miller Chair in Government, Business, and the Economy
    USC Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs

  • Christine M. Beckman

    The Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy