Center on Wealth and Philanthropy Director Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology), center, is flanked by CWP Associate Director John Havens, left, and Thomas B. Murphy '50, a long-time benefactor of the center. Murphy's support, says Schervish, has made it possible for the center to "address deeper aspects of philanthropy, such as Ignatian spirituality." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
A Wealth of Knowledge
Schervish and Havens probe spiritual aspects of wealth, philanthropy
By Sean Smith
Third in a series of profiles on outstanding Boston College researchers
One day in late 1984, a 1950 Boston College alumnus and philanthropist named Thomas B. Murphy returned to his alma mater seeking the answer to a not-so-simple question.
"There had been an explosion of wealth in the early 1980s, with people achieving financial objectives at a younger and younger age," recalled Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology), who in September of that year had become director of BC's Social Welfare Research Institute (SWRI). "Tom wondered about the impact this would have on the United States, and in particular, 'When people become financially secure, do they ask deeper questions about the use of their wealth?'
"So he came to campus to find out who might be willing and able to do such research."
That someone would be Schervish, who along with his SWRI colleague John Havens embarked in January 1985 on the Study of Wealth and Philanthropy with support from the T.B. Murphy Foundation Charitable Trust, of which Murphy was a trustee. The three-year project would be widely hailed for offering a glimpse into the philanthropic orientations and practices of the wealthy.
It also proved to be the beginning of a partnership that, arguably, helped to shape the scope and vision of SWRI, which last year changed its name to the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy (CWP). In the 20 years Schervish has been director, the center has undertaken a multitude of projects examining American's charitable giving habits, the transfer of wealth between generations and other related areas, sponsored fully or in part by the Murphy Foundation.
"One of Paul and John's major contributions was to give us all a better understanding of the major wealth donors in this country," said Eugene Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "Most of the previous work was done on a trial-and-error basis, but they provided a solid theoretical model. Their insights have been of enormous help to philanthropic and non-profit efforts."
The CWP-Murphy collaboration exemplifies one of the critical, and often elusive, elements for a successful research program: a fruitful, long-term relationship with a donor whose interests neatly intersect your own.
"I felt that Boston College was best suited to examine questions of wealth and philanthropy from a religious and spiritual dimension," said Murphy in a recent interview. "The center has been able to put some light on an area which at best had shadows, or in some cases little but darkness. We feel the information has been very useful in helping people allocate their wealth more wisely."
Schervish and Havens, the center's associate director, are quick to note that they have received invaluable support from other funding organizations, notably the Lilly Endowment, Kellogg Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at the University of Indiana. The association with Murphy and his foundation, however, the CWP co-leaders agree, has been something special.
"Tom has very strong ideas about the religious dimensions of wealth and philanthropy," said Havens, "and for us, as part of a university in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition, these blended well with our experience, background and interests."
Schervish said, "Through Tom and the Murphy Foundation, we've been able to address deeper aspects of philanthropy, such as Ignatian spirituality. We find there's a strong relationship between discerning one's self as being truly secure and the degree of philanthropy; it's not just a matter of donating time and money, it's a form of care.
"When you discern yourself that way, you're asking, 'How can I make wiser choices in what I do with my resources?' In some theologies, these choices are set out for you, but not in Ignatian spirituality."
Another productive, albeit more recently initiated CWP collaboration has been with the Lilly Endowment, which led to the center's widely quoted report predicting an intergenerational wealth transfer in the United States of some $41 trillion during the next 50 years, with $6 trillion of that figure expected to go to charity. Their projection was officially adopted by the Council of Economic Advisers, incorporated in analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, and was favorably reviewed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Schervish and Havens are currently breaking down their wealth transfer estimates for specific segments of the US population, such as African Americans.
Other ongoing CWP projects include a study on whether or not Bostonians and New Englanders are actually as stingy as perceived, and a Lilly/Murphy-funded study continuing the exploration of religious and spiritual factors in charitable giving.