Skip to content

Remarks from Susan Ostrander, co-recipient of Distinguished Achievement Award

2019 ARNOVA Distinguished Achievement in Leadership and Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Award

From the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA)
Annual Conference Luncheon Plenary Session
November 21, 2019

Susan A. Ostrander, Professor Emerita, Sociology, Tufts University

For many years, I looked forward at our annual conferences to learning who among us would be honored with this most valued award. I am pleased beyond words to have been chosen, and especially delighted to share the award with Dwight Burlingame.

The occasion of the award sent me to my files to see what if anything I had saved from my long and active affiliation with ARNOVA. I was glad – and a little surprised-- to find several thick files of print notes and copies of e-mails and documents, one devoted to my 2007 to 2012 term on the ARNOVA board and a particularly large file on my several years of chairing the Diversity Committee from 2008 to 2011. I’m not certain, but I think that I first attended the annual conference in 1992 held at Yale University and attended almost every year for two decades until 2013. In more recent years, physical mobility issues that plague so many of us older people have made traveling too difficult and I have missed being with all of you.

Most of the twenty years I attended the ARNOVA conference I gave a paper based on my research and often, like many of you, I also organized a panel. I liked to include people (often people I did not know) who were doing research that I thought might help me challenge and advance my own thinking. As I got to know more people and as people knew me, I got asked to be on panels, be on the editorial board of NVSQ, co-edit a special issue, join and chair award committees and other kinds of committees, plus twice to become a member of the ARNOVA board. These are the sorts of activities that make up the life of a happily engaged scholar. ARNOVA made that possible and I am immensely grateful.

Why did I keep coming back to ARNOVA year after year? I found that I thrived and so did my work on the smaller more welcoming culture at ARNOVA that led to deeper and more personal relationships of colleagueship and genuine friendship. The combination of scholarly and practical attention from both academics and nonprofit professionals fed a sense of purpose in my research. The multi-disciplinary points of view offered new ways of thinking and relating. In a matter of special importance to me, the 2008 ARNOVA Strategic Plan gave high priority to ensuring more people of color at conferences and in organizational leadership positions. The membership soon voted the Diversity Committee as a permanent standing committee of the board. For all these reasons and more, ARNOVA became my intellectual home for some-20 years of my career.

The scholarship for which I am probably best known – the study of philanthropy-- began with my 1984 book Women of the Upper Class where I argued that the volunteer activities of this old wealth class of women, while doing some public good, contributed substantially to upholding the privilege and power of their own class. Based on in-depth interviews with these women, I showed how their philanthropy took a “noblesse oblige” form of “giving back” that justified (and thus helped to maintain) their enormous privilege; how their leadership on the boards of nonprofit social welfare organizations provided them a platform to keep these organizations, as they said, “private,” free from government influence, and as one woman put it, a bulwark against moving “too far to the left” through advocacy or other forms of social change work that might threaten class hierarchy. It is my impression that this kind of elite philanthropy that is rooted in high status exclusive class networks and marked by old wealth family tradition is less dominant today. This is largely because, as others have shown, an influx of new money and those who had it proved necessary to sustain the whole range of nongovernmental organizations that depend on philanthropic dollars.

My initial study of upper class elite philanthropy had captured my interest in philanthropy more generally, so I was delighted when Jon Van Til invited me to join a group of scholars charged with putting together a volume on what was to be a definitive conceptualization of philanthropy. Fellow sociologist Paul Schervish and I co-authored a chapter theorizing philanthropy as a social relationship between donor and recipient calling it a social relations theory of philanthropy. I was most interested in how philanthropy conceived in this way calls upon donors and recipients to engage together in commonly identified and jointly created projects of shared interest. I see this as an alternative to philanthropy where donors give money in accordance with their own interests without the involvement of recipient groups. Critics as far back as Jane Addams (1902) have seen that kind of donor centered and donor driven philanthropy, as I do, as in fundamental contradiction with a democratic society. I was deeply gratified that our 1990 conceptualization of philanthropy as a social relationship between donors and recipients, published in Van Til’s edited volume Critical Issues in American Philanthropy, received at the time a good bit of attention and praise.

Following on this line of thought, I began to search for empirical examples of philanthropy where recipients played an important role in deciding how and where philanthropic dollars were put to work serving recipient needs and interests. This led me to a small social change foundation in Boston called Haymarket People’s Fund which made (and still makes) grants to grassroots social justice organizing groups for what they called “Change Not Charity.” I spent three years doing intensive field research there. My 1995 book Money for Change: Social Movement Philanthropy at Haymarket People’s Fund showed how Haymarket explicitly challenges class privilege and power by turning over the decisions of how grant dollars are spent to allocation committees made up of people drawn from the kind of recipient groups this foundation supports. Those groups are composed largely of people of color, low income people and other marginalized populations. I argued that this way of doing philanthropy transforms the typical social relations of philanthropy where grant decisions are made solely by members of the donor class and, at times, by philanthropy professionals who serve them.

The Haymarket model illustrates one end of a continuum of donor vs. recipient power relations, and over the next few years, I (and other co-authors) wrote about other empirical examples of philanthropy where grantee groups exercised at least some measure of agency over the use of philanthropic dollars that came from donors (whether individuals or foundations). It seemed clear that philanthropy that served and was led by donor interests and concerns was by no means inevitable and was certainly not necessary to sustain philanthropy as a viable social institution.

At the same time, as the 1990’s progressed, it also became clear that the dominant thought and practice of philanthropy had moved in the opposite direction from a notion of philanthropy as a social relationship between donors and recipients. As I argued in a 2007 article (“The Growth of Donor Control: Revisiting the Social Relations of Philanthropy,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly) philanthropy has instead become more and more donor centered, donor driven, and donor controlled. Professional fundraisers are counseled to put donor preferences and passions at the forefront of appeals for money. Charitable gifts are called “investments” and donors are urged to expect a ROI (return on investment). Recipient groups seem to be offered little choice but to cater to what donors want. In an effort to counter this trend, philanthropic reform groups, including some that include the voices of more democratically minded donors, urge donors not to designate specific uses of their gifts. Donors and donor organizations are encouraged instead to direct their gifts to general operating funds that leave decisions of how to use resources to staff and others close to recipient needs and interest. While I have not studied how successful these calls for reform have been, I am pleased to see what seems to be a growing sentiment for placing limits on the huge growth of what are called donor advised funds, and I am gratified by recent calls (such as that by Cynthia Gibson) for “participatory grantmaking” where constituents (grantees) play a role in grant decisions just as I had argued for earlier.

In recent years I have turned away from the study of philanthropy, though I’ve continued my interest in nonprofit and voluntary activity, publishing widely about civic engagement in the university and in urban communities. In addition to doing my research and writing, I was an active leading participant in my university’s civic engagement efforts before I retired; and I continue to be active in my community serving on the board of an immigrant advocacy organization and chairing the fundraising committee.

My most recent book Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City (2013) is based on four years of ethnographic research in the city of Somerville adjacent to Boston. There I explored the role of immigrants in civic and political life and of community voluntary associations in local politics and government. Based on what I saw in Somerville, I argued for a concept of shared governance where elected officials and engaged community members, through associations, negotiate and adapt to each other’s points of view in constructing local policy. I show how this shared governance requires a concept of social citizenship that goes beyond legal citizenship to encompass full community membership by all and a sense of belonging and recognition by members for one another.

Thank you so much to the leadership and membership of ARNOVA for this esteemed award and for this opportunity to tell some of the story of my involvement with ARNOVA and my path as an engaged scholar. Warmest good wishes to all!

banner_distinguished_award_2
Scroll To Top