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Theo Schuyt: incorporate philanthropy in policymaking

30 September 2021
According to sociologist Theo Schuyt of VU Amsterdam, philanthropy literally helps us to survive, but the subject remains invisible to Dutch politicians. This must change, Schuyt argues in his new book Philanthropy.

"Perhaps we needed a pandemic to realise that the Dutch government cannot manage on its own and that private initiative and social involvement keep us going," says Theo Schuyt. "In 2004 I wrote that philanthropy is socially indispensable but politically invisible. This is once again evident during this COVID-19 crisis."

In 2001, Schuyt was appointed professor of philanthropy at VU Amsterdam - the first in Europe. In 1995 he started the biennial study Geven in Nederland (Giving in the Netherlands), in which the giving behaviour of households, individuals, funds, companies and charity lotteries is mapped out. 

With his new book Philanthropy, Schuyt wants to get rid of the dominant image of philanthropy as an exclusive toy of the rich. "Many people's first association with philanthropy is millionaires and billionaires. Or money laundering or people see philanthropy as a threat to the welfare state. But philanthropy is just another word for social commitment."  

"All societies have ethical standards and rules for this. If people are struggling, and have no family to fall back on, no market or government to support them, there is always a safety net. For example, religious organisations or the charity sector," says Schuyt. "Philanthropy belongs to all people and occurs in all societies. Every society has a family structure, an economic market, a government and they all have social involvement."

In the Netherlands, there are numerous examples of this. Schuyt: "An example: the fire brigade. The Dutch fire brigade consists for the most part of volunteers. Of the total of 24 thousand firefighters, 5 thousand are paid, 19 thousand are well-trained volunteers. And look at the KNRM, a philanthropic organisation, with over 1,400 volunteers and 100,000 donors. The Hague does not seem to realise or mention this." 

That is why Schuyt calls on politicians to embrace private initiative, in order to reduce the distance between government and citizens. "There is a lot of social involvement in the Netherlands. Think of energy collectives, citizens starting initiatives when it comes to housing, food, local and circular economy. Everywhere there are movements founded by and for citizens."

With his book, Schuyt wants to contribute to the current debate about the future of the Netherlands from a scientific point of view. In addition, Schuyt uses this book to speak out in favour of philanthropology as a recognised scientific discipline. "The VU was the first to start empirical research into social involvement. This book is also intended as a legitimisation of the discipline," says Schuyt. "If there is a social system function, there must be a science. Every university has a faculty of economics, business administration, public administration and organisational studies. No one has a faculty of engagement, civil society, private initiative." 

Philanthropy - How social involvement helps us survive was published on Thursday 30 September by Boom publishers. To launch the book an (online) symposium took place at the VU, presented by Charles Groenhuijsen. Laetitia Griffith received the first copy of the book. Click here for more information.