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Building Bridges: Connecting Academics and Practitioners

Here at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy we have been talking about building more bridges between academics and practitioners.

Building bridges is certainly not a new idea. Indeed, despite the wide diversity of approaches taken in different academic circles, there are many examples of this exact language in publications from a range of disciplines. For example, authors call for bridges to be built between scholars and practitioners of criminal justice (e.g. Janeksela 1981), policing (e.g. Alpert et al. 2009), education (e.g. Battaglioi & Scicchitano 2013), higher education administration (e.g. Harvard Crimson 2018), management (e.g. Lantham 2017), and business (e.g. Gerstroem Rode 2016).

Even within the world of philanthropy, the notion of building bridges is common in publications (e.g. Bushouse et al. 2011) and within philanthropic initiatives, such as by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (e.g. Heidrich & Long 2002). Plus, our own motto here in the school is "Improving philanthropy to improve the world," and we take that call seriously. Nevertheless, building "pracademic" bridges is not always an easy task. In fact, it can be quite difficult to do this well.

Here is one example of the challenges embedded in building bridges between philanthropic scholars and practitioners: #RedefinePhilanthropy. This Twitter moment, which took place on December 11, 2018, invited practitioners to contribute through the following call: "All around the world, people are calling for leaders & institutions to change - to be more responsive, inclusive, courageous ...And *isn't* #philanthropy one of those institutions?" The questions asked during this Twitter moment, and the participatory responses, were thought-provoking.

Yet, in reading over the three words that come to mind when many of these practitioners hear (or read) the word philanthropy, I am struck by how critical the comments are. For example, one contributor stated: "power, money, justice" and another contributor stated: "privilege, power, white." It is not surprising that these words come to mind as associations with the word philanthropy, but it is striking that contributors focused on critiques of the existing connotations when asked to redefine philanthropy. To be fair, the question itself leads the responder toward existing words, but yet the moment is called #RedefinePhilanthropy. The focus is meant to be constructive, not critical alone.

Other contributors did offer new connotations, such as one contributor who stated: "liberation, redistribution, democratization," and another who stated: "cultural integrity, grassroots movements, justice." Yet I could not help noticing that these more positive connotations were often tied closely to the mission statements of the organizations which the practitioners represented. On the one hand, there is something beautiful about that degree of personalization and co-optation of the word.

On the other hand, my sociological warning bell rings at the sound of social differentiation - the process of social identity groups forming into ever smaller units, even units of one (referred to as "atomism" - metaphorically meaning a single atom rather than a grouped molecule), which often inhibits the formation of any larger and unifying sense of communal identity (e.g. Simmel 1950).

While I completely support and promote critiques of the word philanthropy, I also caution us against entirely breaking apart a word that can offer an umbrella under which many groups can be unified against an onslaught of proverbial social rain. To be noticed above the chatter, to join together across the world, we need a word, however imperfect, that helps us to understand our endeavors as joining together into a larger whole. Collectives depend on some degree of coherence to their actions.

This kind of "collective effervescence" - moments in social life when individuals bond together into groups and feel a sense of unity that is committed to a broader purpose than personal desire - is the basis of society (Durkheim 1915).

We need this kind of a unifying word to form the bedrock of a bridge between academics and practitioners. Underneath that unifying language, critique is welcomed and encouraged, but without a shared word, albeit with many meanings and applications, we face an even greater challenge in working together to promote better and shared understandings. I vote for philanthropy as that word.

That said, there are many flaws with the word philanthropy that deserve mention. Most notably, the word is not inherently inclusive of diverse people, cultures, and perspectives. Let's make it that way: redefine philanthropy for an inclusive tomorrow.


  1. Alpert, Geoffrey P., Jeff Rojeck, and J. Andrew Hansen. 2009. "Building Bridges Between Police Researchers and Practitioners: Agents of Change in a Complex World." National Institute of Justice, Grant # 2009-IJ-CX-0204.

  2. Battaglio, R. Paul, and Michael J. Scicchitano. 2013. "Building Bridges? An Assessment of Academic and Practitioner Perceptions with Observations for the Public Administration Classroom." Journal of Public Affairs Education, 19(4): 749-772.

  3. Bushouse, Brenda K., Willow S. Jacobson, Kristina T. Lambright, Jred J. Llorens, Richardo S. Morse, and Ora-orn Poocharoen. 2011. "Crossing the Divide: Building Bridges Between Public Administration Practitioners and Scholars." Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(S1): i99-i112.

  4. Durkheim, Emile. 1915. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

  5. Gerstroem Rode, Anna. 2016. "Building Bridges Between Theory and Practice." Manage Magazine. (September 26, 2016)

  6. Harvard Crimson Editorial Board. 2018. "The Practicality of a 'Pracademic." The Harvard Crimson. (March 1, 2018)

  7. Heidrich, Katheryn W., and Robert F. Long. 2002. "The Story of the Building Bridges Initiative." W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

  8. Janeksela, Galan M. 1981. "Building Bridges Between the Academic and Practitioner Communities in Criminal Justice." American Journal of Criminal Justice, 6(1): 96-101.

  9. Lantham, John R. 2017. "Building Bridges Between Researchers and Practitioners: A Collaborative Approach to Research in Performance Excellence." Quality Management Journal, 15(1): 8-26.

  10. Simmel, Georg, with Kurt H. Wolff. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

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