A Field of Its Own

By Mendel, Stuart C. | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

A Field of Its Own


Mendel, Stuart C., Stanford Social Innovation Review


After many years of operating on others' academic turf, nonprofit studies is ready to claim new ground.

In 1990, Peter Drucker asserted that "nonprofit institutions are central to American society and are indeedits most distinguishing feature." Since then, as if to amplify Drucker's point, the academic study of the nonprofit sector has grown at an impressive rate. When Drucker made his observation, there were an estimated 19 US-based programs that offered training related to the nonprofit sector. In 2012, by one count, the number of US colleges and universities that offered such training stood at 295.

A primary objective of these programs is to produce the next generation of nonprofit-sector leaders. But as the number of programs has grown and as the quality of their offerings has matured, they have also emerged as important centers of scholarship.

Over the past 20 years, I've come to know this field well through close involvement in academic research on the nonprofit sector- first as a student, then as a paid staff member at Case Western Reserve University, and now as the founding director of a nonprofitstudies research center at Cleveland State University. I was among the first scholars to pursue a doctoral degree in nonprofit management, and I have watched and participated in the process by which this field of inquiry has evolved and matured. Recently, I was named president-elect of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC); my tenure in that post will begin this coming summer. In advance of taking on this new role, I have begun thinking about the place of nonprofitsector studies in higher education.

Since its founding in 1991, NACC has expanded to include nearly 60 member institutions. The growth in the number of nonprofit-studies programs, as I've noted, is an important indicator of a transformation that is well under way. Even so, I see an opportunity to advance the frontier of nonprofitsector knowledge creation still further.

Today, for instance, published scholarship on nonprofit organizations continues to cover primarily matters of interest to public management, business, social work, and other fields that each have their own research agenda. In my view, though, a leading-edge approach to nonprofit-sector scholarship should address all aspects of what is variously called the "nonprofit," "independent," "voluntary," "charitable," or "third" sector.

The academic study of the nonprofit sector began in earnest in the late 1970s. Four decades later, signs that nonprofit studies is approaching a tipping point-that it is ready to become an autonomous field of study-are plain to see. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University, and other academic centers of this kind offer examples of a deepening commitment to nonprofit studies as a distinct field of knowledge. At the same time, students have shown an increasing interest in pursuing field placements and internships at nonprofit organizations, and university leaders have come to believe that practiceoriented learning of that kind not only provides a valuable classroom experience for students, but also serves the public service mission of their institution.

These developments have created the conditions to support two important innovations of this field. First, there is an opportunity to advance a nonprofit studies approach to learning that broadens its focus beyond nonprofit management. Second, there is an opportunity to develop a nonprofit-first perspective on research as well as pedagogy.

NONPROFIT MANAGEMENTAND BEYOND

Typically, educators in the more mature fields of business management, public administration, and social work view nonprofit management as a derivative subfield of their discipline. A sampling of nonprofitoriented topics in business management programs, for example, would include budgeting and finance, social enterprise, evaluation of social outcomes, cause-related marketing, business ethics, and corporate social responsibility. …

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