Photo: Dean of Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Amir Pasic, Ph.D.

Civic Innovators: Weaving a Tapestry with The Patterson Foundation

Posted on December 17, 2019 by Dean of Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Amir Pasic, Ph.D.
If you follow higher education, you know it is in crisis. If you follow our philanthropic institutions, you know they, too, are in crisis. If you look to the communications technology that has connected computing devices around the globe enabling unprecedented human connectivity, there too is a crisis. Commercial and political agendas have turned many prominent social media platforms into arenas of manipulation.

We seem far from a time when Wikipedia signaled a different kind of future for the internet, one that enabled volunteers around the world to distill the best of human knowledge to benefit everyone with access to the Web.

Luckily, Wikipedia continues to hold its own as it often emerges among top search results on the Web. It provides a fundamental good, perhaps because it does not aim to generate profits or influence elections.

Similarly, our school seeks to find opportunities among the crises in education, philanthropy, and communication to improve the quality of civic engagement. One promising project is our partnership with The Patterson Foundation.

Contrary to the critique that some endowed foundations can represent “the dead hand of the past” constraining what can be done in the present, The Patterson Foundation seeks innovation and pushes to empower emerging generations who will shape the future.

As scholars of foundations point out, the relative unaccountability enjoyed by private foundations can be a license for stasis and inertia, or it can provide the freedom to innovate and discover. The key is that The Patterson Foundation has consciously embraced innovation, intentionally exploring new ways of operating that promise significant positive change.

I wrote about our partnership when it was new last March, when master’s degree student Hannah Saeger Karnei was selected as the inaugural Patterson Foundation Fellow. Now, I think that the experiential component of The Patterson Foundation Fellows Program helps to inform how we can more deliberately integrate our education into the lives and careers of our students.

In higher education, we still largely follow an annual schedule dictated by the cycles of a nineteenth-century agricultural economy and a credit system that was an innovation at the cusp of the twentieth. There is great value in disconnecting from the urgent demands of work, family, and other daily duties to learn deeply within a diverse community. But such exits from the everyday need to be well planned and deliberate, and they need to be affordable.

At the same time, programs like The Patterson Foundation Fellows Program create meaningful and intense engagements with the world of practice and policy. They can consummate one phase of formal education as it prepares citizens to continually weave together systematic and practical knowledge throughout their lives.

As Saeger Karnei, our inaugural Patterson Foundation Fellow, reflected on her experience, we see growth occurring as she applies the liberal arts understanding of context, history, and theory:
“New possibilities will arise all of the time, so your work will constantly change. You will be challenged throughout this process. This is a place, though, where your education can go hand-in-hand and help you learn and grow your network.

“It’s been an incredible experience. By investing in the potential of myself to achieve better things, I’m able to have a greater impact on the philanthropic sector.”

In mentoring a group of mid-career nonprofit professionals from Africa funded by the Ford Foundation, Professor Lehn Benjamin has sought to capture the accumulated practical knowledge that these accomplished leaders bring to their immersion into the systematic knowledge of the academy. She has found Aristotle’s notion of phronesis helpful as a description of practical wisdom, connected to but distinct from the episteme of scientific knowledge and the techne of craft.

Certainly, not everything worth knowing is sequestered in a university. For the civic sector, perhaps more so than any other, we need deliberate flows of different kinds of knowledge to engage each other.

This is one benefit of our growing online master’s program that gives passionate nonprofit and philanthropy professionals everywhere access to a superb faculty, many of whom have practiced in the field before they chose to devote their careers to research and teaching.

They are eager to mentor students like our inaugural Patterson Foundation Fellow. And we need to do more to make sure education comes alongside students, rather than expecting them to leave their daily responsibilities and become full-time, residential students. Our courses are intended to create that exit from the everyday and help participants craft their own perspective, combining episteme with techne to advance phronesis.

We need to share knowledge and make it more accessible and useful to practitioners and policymakers. This is again an insight that has been amplified through The Patterson Foundation experience.

If we are ever to make a dent in the barrage of commercial messages we receive on every kind of media platform, or if we are to attract more attention from professional journalism that often sees government-directed activity as all there is to civic life, we will need better communication. And we will need to nurture communication virtuosos on nonprofits and philanthropy; virtuosos who know the substance and can convey it through compelling stories.

It has been gratifying that The Patterson Foundation recognized the value of our curiosity-based curriculum, full of “why” questions that end up changing the fundamental ways we understand our societies and ourselves in working for good. But it has also been instructive to see the premium The Patterson Foundation places on communication.

Once a program succeeds, its success needs to be communicated not only to recognize the great work that made it happen, but also to allow others to see if the successful experience can be applied in other contexts. And if the communication is to have lasting impact, it needs to connect with the academy where it can be vetted, linked to other ways of knowing, and shared with subsequent generations.

In terms of the scholarly enterprise, we also need to better incorporate the practical wisdom that leaders in the sector have acquired and find more bridges to connect practical and learned knowledge. And here also, communication is fundamental.

As our students weave together innovative possibilities through programs like The Patterson Foundation Fellowship, with its emphasis on communication across ways of knowing and doing, I look forward to learning more.

Best regards,
Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

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