The future of research on nonprofits major challenges for academic and practitioners
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The Future of Research on Nonprofits: Major Challenges for Academic and Practitioners. IDEEL ARENA and the Swedish Research Council Stockholm February 10, 2011 Dennis R. Young. Outline of my presentation.

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The future of research on nonprofits major challenges for academic and practitioners

The Future of Research on Nonprofits:Major Challenges for Academic and Practitioners

IDEEL ARENA and the Swedish Research Council


February 10, 2011

Dennis R. Young

Outline of my presentation

Outline of my presentation

  • How has nonprofit research developed in the U.S. and elsewhere? Dimensions, drivers and issues.

  • What are the challenges and opportunities for nonprofit research driven by the needs of practice?

  • ARNOVA and the Gates Foundation: attempting to craft a pragmatic research agenda addressed to nonprofits and public policy

  • Summary observations and possible futures for nonprofit research

Evolution of nonprofit sector research

Evolution of nonprofit sector research

  • Pre-history of the field, pre-1970s

  • Organizing of the field, 1970s and ’80s

  • Seminal contributions, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s

  • Maturing and flowering of the field, ’90s – present

  • Alternative futures

Pre history


  • Study of voluntary behavior: AVAS and JVAR

  • Study of social movements, e.g., Zald

  • Study of collective action and political interest groups, e.g., Olson

  • Study of public bureaucracy, e.g.,Niskanen

  • Study of policy, organizational and management issues, and service effectiveness within subsectors: e.g., health, education, social services, the arts

  • Organizational studies, e.g., YMCA (Zald), March of Dimes (Sills)

  • Overall, much nonprofit-related research existed, albeit in fragmented, uncoordinated, unfocused and not specifically identified as “nonprofit”

Seminal events

Seminal events

  • Peterson and Filer commissions (1970s)

  • Establishment of PONPO (1977)

  • Establishment of Independent Sector/research division and spring research forums (1980s)

  • Establishment of the NCCS/IRS and other data bases (1990s -present)

  • Transformation of AVAS to ARNOVA and JVAR to NVSQ (1990)

  • Establishment of ISTR, EMES, JANPORA and other research associations (1990s)

  • Johns Hopkins Comparative Sector Project (1990s)

  • Proliferation of academic centers in U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, Israel and elsewhere (1990s - present)

  • Establishment of new scholarly journals: NML, Voluntas , Journal of Civil Society Studies, Voluntary Sector Review, Nonprofit Policy Forum, Nonprofit Review and others(1990s – present)

  • Seminal compendia: Yale Handbook, Nonprofit Almanac, Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (1980s – present)

  • Pioneering book series: Yale series, IS Conference books, Johns Hopkins Series, Elgar Handbooks and others (1980s – present)

The early big issues addressing filer s terra incognita

The early “big issues”: addressing Filer’s “terra incognita”

  • What exactly is a nonprofit organization?

  • What is the size, scope, significance of the nonprofit or third sector?

  • In what functions, services and activities do nonprofit organizations engage?

  • Why do nonprofit organizations exist in a market economy and democratic society?

  • How do nonprofits behave? How are they different from for-profit or governmental organizations?

Pioneering contributions

Pioneering contributions

  • Establishing an empirical data base: Independent Sector, Urban Institute, Johns Hopkins Project

  • Formulating theories of existence: Weisbrod, Hansmann, Salamon, Ben-Ner

  • Formulating theories of behavior: James, Young, Weisbrod, Andreoni

  • Providing historical context: Hall, Hammack, McCarthy

  • Providing international context: Salamon, Anheier, Defourney, Borzaga, many others

Early conundrums

Early conundrums

  • Sector as an economic concept; not a precise fit with generic approaches of other disciplines such as sociology, political science and psychology

  • Legal forms and political and cultural traditions differ from country to country; difficulty in defining universal characteristics of so-called third sector organizations

    • Non-distribution constraint

    • Governance arrangements

    • Relationships to government and business

  • Incompatibility and incompleteness of available data

  • Do certain sub-sectors really think of themselves as part of a larger third sector? e.g., the arts, higher education in the U.S.

  • Should certain (commercialized or gov’t dominated) subsectors be included? e.g., hospitals in U.S.

  • Difficulties of obtaining information on religious institutions, given constitutional issues of church and state

What have been the driving forces behind nonprofit research

What have been the driving forces behind nonprofit research ?

  • Political/governmental antagonism (U.S.)

  • Private foundation support (U.S.)

  • Devolution and privatization; government support (Europe)

  • Expansion of democracy and market societies (e.g., Eastern and Central Europe, developing countries)

  • Academic entrepreneurship and intellectual interest

  • Needs of teaching and practice (especially growth of graduate programs in nonprofit management)

  • Not government funding (unfortunately?)

Digression on current funding for nonprofit research quick survey of nacc members

Digression on Current Funding for Nonprofit Research: Quick survey of NACC members

  • Survey of 50 NACC members/10 responses – 9 US centers and 1 Canadian

  • 9 centers had sponsored (funded) research/8 US centers

  • 4 centers received gov’t funding for research/3 US centers

  • Average % of gov’t funding for those with gov’t supported research was 31%/38% for US centers

  • Federal gov’t was most common source of gov’t funds

  • Other sources of research funding included foundations, nonprofit associations, corporations, private donors, internal university funds and endowments

  • Overall: nonprofit research funding in the U.S. is fragmented and government is not the dominant funder

Opportunities and challenges of a needs based research agenda

Opportunities and Challenges of a “Needs based” Research Agenda

  • Not impossible for academics and practitioners to collaborate on research, despite different motivations and goals

  • Necessary to develop more effective and efficient management practices and public policies

  • Can be academically rewarding, especially in stretching the boundaries of traditional disciplinary research

Academics and practitioners

Academics and Practitioners

  • Academics seek opportunities for rigorous, generalizeable research that can be published in peer reviewed journals and used for classroom teaching

  • Practitioners want useable results, expressed in plain language and clear formats, that can lead to improvements in policies and practices

  • Collaboration requires mutual respect and understanding of each others’ needs and aspirations

  • Many practitioners are genuinely interested in relevant quality research clearly presented, and many academics are motivated to learn from the experiences of practitioners and their organizations.

  • Quality research can require substantial (external) resources for faculty and student time, acquisition, cleaning and processing of good data and maintaining of research infrastructure

Some contemporary nonprofit research questions of mutual interest to academia and practice

Some contemporary nonprofit research questions of mutual interest to academia and practice:

  • Governance – what governing board structures and policies lead to more effective organizations in different contexts and circumstances?

  • Finance – what sources and mixes of income are mostly likely to support nonprofit organizations with various missions and in different stages of development? How do endowed organizations differ from nonendowed organizations in their performance and stability? What factors influence giving and volunteering?

  • Performance – how is organizational effectiveness and financial health and sustainability best measured for various kinds of nonprofits?

  • Growth – what are the ways in which effective nonprofits can “go to scale” and achieve greater societal impact?

More research issues of mutual interest to academic and practice

More research issues of mutual interest to academic and practice

  • Strategy – how and when should nonprofits seek to coordinate or partner with other organizations? When and it what ways should they be allowed to compete?

  • Policy Advocacy –What structures, policies and practices best accommodate the tensions between service delivery and public policy advocacy? What strategies allow nonprofits to be most effective in the policy arena?

  • Human Resources –What are the most effective deployments and mixes of paid staff and volunteers? What compensation structures work best for paid staff at various levels in nonprofit organizations?

  • Public Policy – How are nonprofits effectively regulated and held accountable for their performance? In what ways should they be subsidized or exempt from taxes? In what fields should they be allowed to compete? What government services are most effectively outsourced to nonprofits?

The arnova gates conference fleshing out a research agenda

The ARNOVA-Gates Conference: fleshing out a research agenda

  • October 4-5, 2010 in Baltimore

  • 30 scholars and nonprofit leaders

  • Goal to create a research agenda to study how public policy affects nonprofits in the U.S.

Key questions addressed

Key questions addressed

  • What are the most critical policy issues presently facing the nonprofit sector?

  • What do we really know, from rigorous research, about the positive or negative impacts of past, current, and prospective policies.

  • What are the gaps in our knowledge—not just research, but basic data—about the interaction of public policies and nonprofits?

  • What kinds of research might be framed to generate new insights of immediate utility to nonprofits and policy makers that would elevate the quality and hopefully the results of the nonprofit public policy discourse?

Research agenda emerging from the conference broad themes

Research agenda emerging from the conference (broad themes)

  • What are the different forms of funding available to the nonprofit sector and how do their impacts differ ?

  • How does government funding impact how nonprofits operate?

  • How do regulatory and tax policies support or hinder the nonprofit sector and the benefits it can deliver?

  • What are the challenges and opportunities from “emerging organizational forms”?

  • What are the civic roles of the nonprofit sector?

  • What is the value proposition for the nonprofit sector?

Observations about the u s academic practitioner dialogue

Observations about the U.S. academic/practitioner dialogue

  • Consensus around need for more data and description of how things actually work

  • Strong mutual interest in impacts of policy on nonprofits and nonprofits on society

  • Fundamental questioning of the role of nonprofit organizations and what their roles, privileges and obligations are and should be

  • Positive, empirical research and analysis as the common ground between practitioners’ desires for facts and actionable results and academics’ sometimes more esoteric interests in theory , models and relationships

An overall assessment of the current state of nonprofit research

An overall assessment of the current state of nonprofit research

  • Success in establishing a recognizable field of scholarship with fuzzy borders

  • An interdisciplinary field with greater progress in some disciplines than others

  • Considerable progress in creating useful data bases

  • Considerable progress in international comparative research – Johns Hopkins, EMES network, etc.

  • Considerable progress in creating publications outlets through new journals, book series and mainline publication in disciplinary journals

  • Some progress with multi-disciplinary research efforts, especially through coordinated book projects:

    • Yale Handbooks

    • Urban Institute books on Nonprofit/Government and Nonprofit/Business Relations

    • Other multidisciplinary book projects such as Powell and Clemens, Private Action and the Public Good

    • Various Handbook projects – e.g., Jossey-Bass; Edward Elgar

  • Large scale or truly interdisciplinary projects are rare

  • Lots of opportunities for new, cutting edge work

  • Not yet entirely clear that the field is correctly defined or framed

Some alternative futures for the field of nonprofit research

Some alternative futures for the field of nonprofit research

  • Continued progress within the defined framework of not-for-profit organizations, along disciplinary lines

  • Integration across disciplines within the current framework

  • Broadening of the nonprofit framework to include cooperatives, limited-profit enterprises and other manifestations of social purpose organization

  • Reframing of the field in terms of other integrative concepts such as social enterprise , social economy or civil society

  • Broadening of attention from formal organizations, subsectors and sectors, to more fully embrace (at the bottom) less formal voluntary organizations and (at the top) transnational nonprofit organizations, associations and movements

  • Refocusing of attention from nonprofits per se to “hybridization” of the economy/integration of nonprofit, business and government – networks, partnerships and mixed forms of enterprise

Final thoughts

Final thoughts

  • I congratulate you on your dialogue and encourage your development of a robust funded research agenda of mutual interest to academia and practice

  • Government funding is important (the U.S. model not withstanding). Private funding can add diversity, innovation and stimulus.

  • Needs-driven research can be both practical and useful, and intellectually compelling and academically rewarding

  • The appropriate research agenda will differ from country to country. Sweden and the U.S. differ substantially in the roles and functioning of nonprofits and civil society organizations. Hence our research agendas will necessary differ.

  • We can learn much from each other!

Some useful references

Some useful references

  • Walter W. Powell and Richard Steinberg (eds.), The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, 2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2006

  • David O. Renz (ed.) and Associates, The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2010

  • Bruce A. Seaman and Dennis R. Young (eds.), Handbook of Research on Nonprofit Economics and Management, Edward Elgar, 2010

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