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2020 ARNOVA Distinguished Achievement in Leadership and Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Award

From the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA)

Melissa M. Stone, University of Minnesota

Looking back and looking forward: Expansive thinking, a developmental approach, and a sense of joy in what we do

I am honored to receive the 2020 Distinguished Achievement and Leadership Award from ARNOVA, an association that has meant a lot to me over the past 35 years.

Like many of you, I am sad to miss our Awards Luncheons and the din of voices from hundreds of conversations in a large, hotel ballroom.  One of the things I most enjoy about our luncheons is both finding old friends and also sitting at a table with folks I don’t know, often new ARNOVA participants, often graduate students giving their first academic presentations, and often from places beyond US borders. ARNOVA has intentionally maintained an expansive and expanding view of itself as a scholarly association; so, while this year is different, my hope is that an ever-broadening and diverse group of participants will always feel welcome at our tables.

I want thank the Awards Committee for their work and especially my nominators, Steven Rathgeb Smith and Carrie Oelberger.  I first met Steve in the 1980s when we were both graduate students, and he and I have remained colleagues and friends ever since.  We have been fortunate to see the field congeal, grow, create institutional anchors where his leadership, along with that of the co-nominators, has been critical. Carrie is a more recent colleague, and we met through ARNOVA’s Doctoral Fellows Workshop. Carrie, along with co-nominators Alnoor Ebrahim and David Suarez, are now helping provide new intellectual and institutional leadership as the field grows and develops. I also want to note that, while Carrie and her family dealt with the COVID-19 virus, Alnoor and David stepped in to move the nomination forward.  I also want to thank my husband, Paul Stone, who has been with me since graduate school days.  He has provided constant support and encouragement all along the way, and, as a historian, he has always reminded me to pay attention to the historical context surrounding the questions I explored.  Thank you to all involved.

As I thought about the remarks I wanted to share, two aspects of my personal experience kept surfacing.  The first of these concerns nearly ten years of work in Alaska, during the 1970s, of founding nonprofits that worked with and for kids and families in crisis.  We were flying by the seat of our pants but wanted to “change the world.” Those experiences fostered my fascination with organizations and governance and, hence, have always grounded both my research and teaching.  The second was my graduate school experience in the 1980s at the Yale Program on Non-Profit Organizations, or PONPO, for short.  It was here that I met my long-time collaborator and friend, Francie Ostrower. One of the hallmarks of our experience was feeling that, even as graduate students, we were contributing to something important.  Alongside other graduate students, junior and senior faculty, new academic centers, and practitioners, from around the US and other countries, we were helping to build a field of study. What struck me most about my time at Yale was that the thinking was expansive, big questions were being asked by a joint collective of scholars from many diverse, academic disciplines as well as leading practitioners.

From these experiences and certainly others, let me offer a few reflections that look ahead as well as back.

First, we need to continue to promote expansive thinking and attention to big questions in our field.   Big questions about and within the field remain salient and, while being explored by many of us, still need our attention. For example, how, in the 2020s, would we approach the question of why nonprofits exist in certain fields, cultures, and historical contexts, rather than corporate or public sector organizations?  Or, how do we now understand tensions between private aims and public goals that have long characterized the sector but today exist alongside heightened awareness of persistent, structural inequities?  And, what are the changing roles for nonprofit, nongovernmental, civil society organizations in democratic and non-democratic regimes?   To explore these and other questions, we continue to need a cross-disciplinary approach that embraces philosophy, history, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, alongside management and public policy.  There are many pressures in academia to explore more narrow research questions in order to be published, get hired, achieve tenure and promotion.  Still, there are opportunities to situate more specific research questions in the context of larger questions that promote deeper understanding in the field. Wide-ranging, intellectual curiosity must remain a hallmark for our work.

Second, I think the field of nonprofit and philanthropic studies has fostered and must continue to emphasize a developmental approach.  We need to continually articulate that the “field of nonprofit and philanthropic studies” has not arrived to take its place alongside other academic fields but that it is continually evolving, much as the phenomena we study and care about. And we each have a role to play in nurturing graduate students, supporting junior faculty, enticing new senior faculty into the field, and connecting with practitioners.  As I mentioned earlier, ARNOVA seems to have this approach hard-wired into its institutional DNA. A developmental approach, however, needs to be constantly rejuvenated by all of us.  How do we give scholars, especially those new to the field, a genuine feeling that they are part of a very important endeavor and part of a broadly collective effort?

Third, and related, our teaching and curriculum development work remain critically important to the field.  Perhaps because of my prior experience as a founder and executive director who “flew by the seat of her pants,” I have always been committed to teaching as well as curriculum development. Efforts at ARNOVA, and especially NACC, greatly enhanced my learning (and that of many others) about both of these subjects. I view teaching about nonprofit management as more than presenting a set of tools and techniques.  Teaching provides important opportunities for students to grapple with some of the big questions I mentioned above, situated in the context of management and leadership situations. Teaching also offers opportunities to help students  become multilingual, that is, fluent in relevant concepts and ideas from both the world of business management and the world of public policy/policy advocacy in order to lead effective organizations that articulate and enact values-based missions.  Our teaching and research missions go hand-in-hand to continue to develop the field.

Finally, let me offer an observation that goes way back in my career – even as a graduate student at PONPO, I noticed that people in this field were funny, laughed a lot, had very good senses of humor.  And, the contrast with academic conferences I attended outside of ARNOVA was stark.  Not only did I feel like I could exhale at ARNOVA, I found myself laughing, in the hallways, over coffee or drinks, sitting around discussion tables, wherever.  (Dennis Young, Linda Serra, Dave Renz, Will Brown, Robert Ashcraft, Ruth McCambridge, many more, you know who you are!)  So, why might that be?  Is it the standard explanation, “we take the subject matter very seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously?”  Perhaps, but I think we do take ourselves seriously, as scholars, teachers, and mentors.  Rather, it may be because of the genuine joy we have in the work and the knowledge of why we are engaged in it.  Perhaps it is because we have a sense of belonging and meaningfulness that what we are all, collectively, engaged in really matters.  I hope that ARNOVA continues to maintain that spirit for years to come.

Thank you all, again, for this honor, and I look forward to seeing many of you in person in 2021.

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