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Reflections on a Beginning and a Quest for a Lifetime

Through the Fellowship, I have found in CSIP a now distant but ever-welcoming and resolute home, an academic sanctuary, if you will, writes Bhakti Patil

It is an oddly warm autumn day here in Edinburgh as I finally sit to write this long-pending piece.

I have never appreciated protraction, and procrastinating tasks, especially writing, has always filled me with some guilt, often leading up to manic desperation and anxiety as the deadline closes in—never the best recipe for decent writing. Yet, this time, I found myself putting this off from one weekend to the next—first looking for the best time to write and then for the right place—when both were found, for an amenable state of mind. I am not sure that a sweltering morning might be the right time, my tiny apartment with no fans, the right place, or that either could make for the right state of mind. However, I am here writing and wondering whether it was ever the time, place or state of mind that had made me procrastinate so splendidly. I reckon that it was not.

I want to begin writing as I sense the panic setting in. As I think now, there are so many things that I could and should write about—those nine months of the CSIP research Fellowship—the reading, the writing, the conversations, and so much learning. However, I find myself wanting to write instead about just what it might have been that has made it so difficult for me to reflect on and grasp in the written word my experience as a CSIP research fellow. Somehow, it is this predicament that seems most important, for it is a predicament that I feel incredibly grateful for.

The problem, I feel, has been that of distance—the intractable one that reflection makes imperative. It is in this sense that I find it impossible to reflect on the CSIP Fellowship, for I cannot imagine it outside of a radical intimacy. It has been almost a year since the Fellowship officially ended, and I am sitting here with all its offerings lodged so resolutely within me. Here and now, it has been one year since I started my doctoral journey that, in all honesty, might not have become a reality—at least not just yet—had it not been for the patient mentorship, academic rigour, and critical immersion into the world of philanthropy that the Fellowship afforded me.

I remain most indebted to CSIP for lessons in listening and vulnerability and for revealing to me—not without at least some protest from me—the radical promise of philanthropy. I now feel that to be vanquished in the pursuit of knowledge or the act of research is a privilege. In this instance, it has been a privilege made possible by the critical exhortations of my CSIP research mentors, their patience and kindness, and their commitment to academic honesty that dismantled my prejudice, urging me not only to seek out different answers but also to pose different questions.

And all of that, while it no doubt led to better research and writing then, has left me with something that I now consider far more significant—a measure of humility and faith in the possibilities of philanthropy.

When I started the CSIP Fellowship, I had spent about eight years fundraising for non-profits in India. I had worked closely with philanthropists/philanthropic institutions and their grantees and investees as partners in development and reform. However, while I had grown to realise and appreciate the immense value of philanthropy as a critical driver of social change, I had also become increasingly apprehensive and undeniably fearful of the marked straitjacketing of philanthropic thought and practice. As philanthropy tended to increasingly converse in a language of business and through a lexicon of quantification, managerialism, and marketisation, I had mourned what I had felt was its departure from the fundamental question of morality.

So, when I had written out my research proposal and gone in and out of the first few meetings with my research mentors at CSIP, I had most obstinately believed that there was something deeply wrong with the way philanthropy was being practised and that this failure had everything to do with its marketisation and the consequent ethical paucity. I would not say that I have completely abandoned this belief as I continue to research and seek out ways and means of reinstating the moral sense in the discourse and practice of philanthropy, but what my time as a CSIP fellow taught me was that the question of ethics was also, in fact, a question of reflexivity—that I, as a researcher, had to listen and to learn, and that could lead me to a place of critique very different from where I had stood.

Nine months went by with intense discussions, frantic writing, and multiple rounds of editing. CSIP allowed me to read, write, reflect, and most importantly learn from practitioners who thought about and did philanthropy every day. Through their exceeding generosity and patient conversations, I began to see the limits of my own imagination. In them, I saw the deep reflexivity that I had lacked. In their self-critique, I found an aperture of hope and possibility that has reinstated my faith in the philanthropic project and the urgency of political and normative contestations that research within and outside the academy ought to pursue. In this regard, CSIP has given me a beginning and a quest for a lifetime.

As I close, I want to return to that radical intimacy I began with. Through the Fellowship, I have found in CSIP a now distant but ever-welcoming and resolute home, an academic sanctuary, if you will. Now continents away, as I continue to follow all the brilliant research the institution engages in, I always find myself filled with immense pride and joy.

What else is there to cherish and keep, if not that sense of belonging?

(Bhakti Patil was a Research Fellow with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy in 2022. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews, researching the possibilities of Ahiṃsā as a principle of philanthropic practice)

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