Conferences / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Dialoging with Indiana’s Past: Philanthropy in a State-wide Context

Editors’ Note: Gregory Witkowski introduces the Hoosier Philanthropy Conference, which will take place February 18-19.

The Hoosier Philanthropy Conference: Understanding the Past, Planning the Future (follow us February 18-19 on Twitter at #INPHIL200) aims to integrate practice and scholarship, providing an avenue for a constructive exchange between scholars and philanthropy and nonprofit professionals throughout the state of Indiana. It includes plenary discussions of the past, present and future that provide the philanthropic context, as well as individual case studies that indicate the great diversity of the field. To our knowledge it is the first effort to both chronicle the accomplishments of the nonprofit sector in a state and to provide an opportunity for statewide reflection on the future of philanthropic engagement.

Indiana’s Bicentennial provides the occasion to reflect on the role of Hoosiers and Hoosier institutions in developing the practice and the understanding of philanthropy. Through case studies and an inclusive approach to dialogue, we seek to expand knowledge of the broad diversity of philanthropic engagement in Indiana, including foundations but also service providers, volunteers, donors, and associations. Part of this approach is to use a broad definition of philanthropic engagement that will allow for an assessment of the impact of the nonprofit sector on the state.

Panels on the first day focus on six aspects of philanthropy: the arts, higher education, social services, religion, health, and civic engagement. Each includes a historian introducing trends over time and four to six current practitioners from all parts of the philanthropic sector (donors, fundraisers, innovators, leaders of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and so forth). These practitioners will enter into dialogue with the past by commenting on a historical trend and an example from their current experience. By juxtaposing the past and the present, we hope to highlight both continuities and changes in the field. The conference will seek to use this dialogue with the past to draw lessons for the future.

Philanthropic innovation has a long tradition in Indiana that has continued to today. Tracing the 200-year history but focusing on the last century will allow for greater comparison. During the Progressive era, Indiana faced many of the social problems brought on by the societal transformations of the industrial age. Philanthropic leaders sought new solutions to these social needs.

At the vanguard of philanthropic experimentation in the Progressive Era, Hoosiers were both innovators and early adopters.   Indiana had the greatest number of Carnegie libraries in the United States, engaging communities to build and maintain these educational institutions that in many cases remain key libraries throughout the state. In Indianapolis, one of the first Charity Organization Society chapters in the United States was formed in 1879. It dedicated itself to fighting poverty by sending volunteers into households, a practice that some view as paving the way for the social workers of today.   Indianapolis also formed a Community Chest that facilitated the collaboration among philanthropic organizations by unifying their fundraising efforts. This federated fundraising approach is today best known through the work of the United Way of Indiana, and has been adopted throughout the United States. Finally the capital city formed one of the first community foundations in 1916, adapting the model only two years after Cleveland. Today, the Central Indiana Community Foundation is the third largest grantmaker in the state and the community foundation model has been adopted in virtually every county in the state, making Indiana the state with the most community foundations in the country.

Supporting communities throughout the state is one of the nation’s largest foundations, Lilly Endowment, Inc. Civil War veteran and chemist Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, inspired the family’s philanthropic tradition. In 1937, Colonel Lilly’s son, J.K. Lilly and J.K.’s sons, Eli Lilly and J.K. Lilly, Jr., established Lilly Endowment Inc., a private family foundation, with gifts of stock in their company. It remains an engaged partner with many organizations throughout the state and its focus as a major institution on state-wide needs is a model for regional engagement by large foundations.

Just as in the Progressive Era, today we again face great need that requires philanthropic engagement. The drive to experiment with new solutions to society’s problems has remained unaltered. Philanthropic leaders are once again searching for new philanthropic approaches and forms able to adapt to a rapidly changing society. To give full credit to this broad diversity of philanthropic experimentations, the conference will use historical case studies to assist, inform, and guide current discussions of future philanthropic strategies. We will focus both on what has changed and what has remained constant within the diverse nonprofit field. For the full program go to

-Gregory R. Witkowski

Gregory R. Witkowski is Associate Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.



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