Reconciling scholar and practitioner identities in advancement research: A closer look

Genevieve G. Shaker and Victor M. H. Borden’s article, Analyzing Three Decades of Philanthropic Giving to U.S. Higher Education (1988-2018, from Philanthropy & Education’s Fall 2020 issue, is now available on for free JSTOR. Below, the co-authors discuss their perspectives on doing research as scholar-practitioners and their goals for this study

What perspectives did you bring to this study?

Gen Shaker: Today, I am a full-time teacher and researcher, but I began my career as a higher ed advancement person, working on fundraising, alumni programming, and communications. For several years, I simultaneously served as associate dean for development and assistant professor. Vic and I became research partners during that time and studied faculty and staff donors to Indiana University (IU). Not surprisingly, I’m a donor to the university myself, and humorously, I was once responsible for helping Vic with his IU donations.

My background illustrates the complexity of raising money—and believing in the power of philanthropic contributions to do good for universities and society—and conducting academic research on the topic. My research could help development staff raise more money. It could also reveal fundraising issues and raise broader concerns about philanthropy’s institutional roles. A pattern of giving, for example, may be understood very differently when examined across time in comparison to how a single donation is perceived within an institution and in the moment. I take my responsibilities as an educator, former fundraiser, student of philanthropy, and researcher seriously because I want to make practical contributions even as I am helping advance theoretical perspectives. I want what I am doing in teaching and research to make a difference for society.

Vic Borden: Like Gen, I was in a full-time administrative role before shifting my focus to the research and teaching duties affiliated with my faculty appointment. Unlike Gen, I never fully divested from the administrative side, but my role shifted from directing institutional research units to teaching, research, ad hoc institutional studies, and national projects in higher education.

I often find myself switching hats abruptly within a single day. Recently, I completed an analysis for senior institutional leadership on approaches for improving our university’s representation in several international and national rankings and then worked on a research paper that highlights the contributions of rankings to structural racism in higher education. Similarly, as we were exploring 30-year trends in higher education philanthropy, warts and all, our institution was completing a multi-billion-dollar campaign as a culmination to its bicentennial celebration. Exploring the broader trends in types of donors and the purposes of their gifts greatly inform strategy development to augment revenues, especially as we survive and recover from the current health, economic and social pandemic. However, focusing on those strategies drives us further into a pattern of behaviors that undermine some academic values, particularly those related to preserving areas of scholarship that are not currently in vogue among students or legislators

How do you reconcile the tensions inherent to your roles?

GS: My goal is to provide new insights that institutional decision-makers can apply to understanding and guiding philanthropy on their campuses. Rather than being afraid to bring up issues and concerns, I believe that we need to recognize them in order to address them. Institutional leaders and development teams create the priorities and set the direction for philanthropic giving. My fear is that they sometimes lack enough big picture information to ensure that fundraising priorities are strategically aligned with institutional missions and societal responsibilities.

This study is a resource about giving trends over many years and across many institutions. The findings provide context and a point of comparison for leaders at 4-year colleges and universities. Ultimately, I hope this study and my other work encourages reflection, dialogue, and practices that orient fundraising to achieve institutions’ deepest values and serve important societal and individual purposes.

VB: Gen stole my answer. More generally, I see this as part of the organizational version of self-awareness. The recent pandemic has underscored the need to keep our eyes and minds wide open regarding what we are trying to achieve, for whom, toward what end, and how we treat each other as we do so. Philanthropy is an important component of institutional viability, especially for some types of institutions. I hope our study provides scholars and practitioners with helpful information to contribute to further study, as well as to more organizationally self-aware strategic and tactical decisions.

How can your study inform institutional practices and/or scholarly pursuits?

GS: I’ll give a specific example and focus on practical implications. The study showed dramatic declines in the proportion of unrestricted gifts (at the institutional level) and gifts directed to student aid. As a former fundraiser, the latter surprised me, but the former did not. To me, this exemplifies how research can call assumptions into question. With this information in hand, perhaps institutions can act to reverse the trends by encouraging the flow of dollars to priorities such as student aid, which current events highlight as an increasingly urgent need.

These findings took on new importance in 2020 as universities and their students are struggling to cope with the corona virus. Institutions have responded by fundraising for emergency support for students and some are seeing an opportune moment for raising unrestricted gifts. Only through future data and studies will we know what happens.

VB: Individuals involved directly in development understand well nuances related to who gives to their institution and how, but that level of understanding can be very “tree focused” without significant attention to the forest. In contrast, most academic and administrative staff have a very blunt and not sufficiently evidence-informed understanding of higher education philanthropy. I hope this study and others help to fill in the middle ground, providing development professionals a broader perspective on how their work fits into the overall institutional mission and everyone else some useful distinctions and statistics to improve their understanding of the role of philanthropy in college and university operations and strategies.

Genevieve G. Shaker is an associate professor of philanthropic studies in the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. She served on the advancement team for the IU School of Liberal Arts from 1999-2017.

Victor M. H. Borden is a professor of higher education in the Indiana University Bloomington School of Education and senior advisor to the Executive Vice President for University Academic Affairs.

The associated research study was supported by funding from the TIAA Institute. The content, findings, and conclusions are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of TIAA or the TIAA Institute.