Excerpts from “A History of ARNOVA at Fifty” by Bushouse, Witkowski, and Abramson
The Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) founded in 1971 by a small group of scholars researching voluntary action grew to over 1,000 members in 2021 studying a broad range of nonprofit, civil society, voluntary action, and philanthropic topics (shortened to “nonprofit” hereafter).
1971 - 1990, the founding period
[David Horton] Smith organized a meeting in 1970 at Boston College, where he was teaching, inviting fourteen scholars from multiple disciplines to start a scholarly association… he also contacted the Center for a Voluntary Society in Washington, DC. The center became a major supporter, and the center’s Cynthia Wedel, together with Smith and James Luther Adams, incorporated the Association for Voluntary Action Studies (AVAS) as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity in Washington, DC in 1971.
From the beginning, therefore, ARNOVA was defined by the close relationship between scholarship and practice, with a clear focus on bringing together scholars to address contemporary practice.
Early leaders included established scholars, like University of Michigan social psychologist Ronald Lippitt, whose highly regarded academic contributions brought reputational value to the organization as well as connections…. Emerging scholars saw the benefit of such leaders and repeatedly sought out such respected scholars, but also recognized that the association might run better with leaders who had more time and passion for the organization.
[Jon] Van Til was among these early, energetic leaders and remained an important contributor throughout his career.
From the beginning, the association sought to facilitate scholarship, and so creating a database of scholarly works was one, appropriate, early initiative.
AVAS began to offer conferences in 1974, and conferences became the lifeblood of the organization. The first conferences in Denver and Louisville attracted around 100 attendees…
Members volunteered their time to govern the association. In 1976, there were fourteen different committees constituted. Some, like the convention planning, research, and publication committees, had direct outcomes because of their work, while others were more focused on outreach and creating networks.
By the late 1980s AVAS was a mostly volunteer-led, loosely organized, fragile organization with little organizational infrastructure. … Even while AVAS, with its focus on voluntary action and organizations, was experiencing only sluggish growth, there was increasing scholarly interest in a broader set of issues affecting nonprofits, including management. Moreover, while AVAS was mostly the province of sociologists and social workers, scholars from other disciplines, such as history, political science, economics, management, and law, were also becoming interested in nonprofit topics.
Over time, a variety of pressures moved AVAS to consider expanding its focus beyond voluntary action to embrace other aspects of nonprofit and philanthropic activity as well. These pressures were both internal – including the need for more members and funding – and external – including from nonprofit scholars with increasingly diverse interests beyond voluntarism who might turn to alternative venues….if AVAS did not expand its scope.
Eventually, in a December 1989 conference call, after defeating one proposal to keep the name AVAS but to add a subtitle and another effort to include “international” in the association name, the AVAS board approved a name change to “Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action” or ARNOVA.
The broadening of the association’s focus from voluntary action to a wider range of nonprofit activity, as reflected in the name changes of the association and its journal, was experienced as a major shift at the time and has been seen as an important turning point by those looking back. . . A major tension was conflict between those who wanted to preserve AVAS’s focus on voluntary action and worried about efforts to push nonprofits to be more businesslike, on one side, and those who wanted to broaden the association’s focus on the other side. As a result of this and other tensions, including differences over how international the association should be, the transition from AVAS to ARNOVA was factious and lengthy, taking several years to complete.
1990 - 2006, the golden era of philanthropic support
In its early years, the newly renamed association, ARNOVA, remained a fragile organization much as AVAS had been in the 1980s.
In this context, in the early 1990s board president Thomasina Borkman and association leaders concentrated their efforts on financial stability and membership growth.
Association goals identified in an October 1993 organizational case statement (“Investing in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Community,” 1993) included enduring themes of revenue growth, expanding and diversifying membership, and strengthening ARNOVA’s identity among a growing field of infrastructure and membership associations. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, ARNOVA worked on advancing these and related priorities in large part with foundation support for its initiatives.
The increased funding that ARNOVA received from foundations in the 1990s was part of a broad expansion of foundation support for the underlying support system - or infrastructure - for the nonprofit sector that occurred in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
According to historian Peter Dobkin Hall, the growth of foundation funding for nonprofit research and the broader infrastructure sprang, at least in part, from foundations’ interest in strengthening their own and the overall nonprofit sector’s ability to defend themselves from any renewal of the aggressive government oversight of the 1950s and 1960s. Expansion of the nonprofit research field and its embedding in universities would presumably lend increased legitimacy to foundations and the rest of the nonprofit sector and arm sector leaders with better information to fend off any attacks, although Hall also worried that foundation-funded research would be – or would be seen as – biased boosterism.
ARNOVA’s successful early experience in winning and implementing foundation grants led to renewals with Kellogg and Ford, as well as new grants from the Packard Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. … The Lilly Endowment, Inc. had initially supported ARNOVA through its support for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which began housing ARNOVA’s headquarters in 1994. But eventually, Lilly provided its funding directly to ARNOVA. The grants from these various foundations supported work on ARNOVA’s strategic initiatives.
With foundation funding in hand, ARNOVA was able to hire its first full-time, paid executive director, Anita Plotinsky, who was the staff lead for ARNOVA from 1994-2000. The initial focus for the new executive director was the survival of the association in the context of the establishment and growth of other associations like the International Society for Third Sector Research and IS [Independent Sector], with many thinking ARNOVA might disappear. But with new funding, full-time staff, and a stable headquarters, the association expanded.
ARNOVA’s membership grew in the 1990s because of the increase in the number of nonprofit scholars at universities around the U.S. and the world and because it had the funding and well-functioning board and staff that enabled the association to meet member needs.
ARNOVA continued to have a welcoming approach to newcomers and a generally supportive and friendly culture that likely helped growth.
Of course, this feeling that ARNOVA provided a welcoming community was not necessarily universally shared. ARNOVA’s multiple initiatives to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of its membership … suggest that the association has had to keep striving to make ARNOVA attractive to all.
One strategy for preserving a sense of community in the context of ARNOVA’s growth was to form sub-units of the association, and the board created “sections” in 1999 that allowed members to pay dues to join. The rationale for subgroups in ARNOVA was: “to help express the special interests of current and future members, encourage diversity of leadership, and enrich and enhance the intellectual scope of the Association”.
With a new policy in place, two initial sections were approved: Teaching and Community and Grassroots Associations.
In 1993, the board called for improving the disciplinary diversity of ARNOVA members (“Investing in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Community,” 1993). Starting with AVAS and into the early years of ARNOVA, membership was dominated by sociologists and social workers. But with growing interest from other disciplines in nonprofit and philanthropic research, along with ARNOVA’s outreach efforts to these scholars, including by awarding Focus Field conference travel grants (particularly for the humanities), ARNOVA’s members did become more diverse in their disciplinary affiliations.
The rapid growth of nonprofit management educational programs began in this decade. In fact, the shift in ARNOVA’s membership toward management-focused disciplines led Plotinsky and others to express concern that the association might become too heavily weighted in these academic fields.
In 1993, the board called for improving and focusing on the recruitment and retention of women and racial, ethnic, or other “minority” groups. However, despite ARNOVA’s strategic objective to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of its membership, its progress toward meeting this goal seemed uncertain. … Subsequently, at a board retreat in June 1997, the board decided to endorse a multi-year diversity initiative that would pay particular attention to racial and ethnic diversity. The notion was that this new initiative would be a cross-cutting effort that would engage all of ARNOVA’s other strategic initiatives. The Diversity Initiative specifically called on each ARNOVA committee to annually develop a written statement explaining how the committee would promote diversity in its work and how it would recruit diverse membership. The initiative would also seek funding to encourage graduate students and other emerging “scholars of color,” including, for example, by publishing their work.
The 1999 annual conference reflected the association’s commitment to increasing racial and ethnic diversity by focusing on “Giving and Serving Traditions in Communities of Color” with a keynote address by noted Black historian Bettye Collier Thomas and invited papers and presentations by individuals from minoritized communities. Subsequently, the papers were published in ARNOVA’s Occasional Papers Series, however the funding was for this series depended on foundation support, which was not sustained. There was, however, some success in enhancing diversity. According to 1999 board minutes, 25 percent of the elected board members were people of color, and outreach efforts resulted in the addition of people of color to all ARNOVA committees and increased conference participation.
Cognizant of the costs of truly internationalizing ARNOVA, which would have included added expenditures for translation and additional expenses for its members to travel to conferences around the world, ARNOVA’s leaders decided the association should be welcoming to international members but should not have an international focus or hold conferences around the world. This decision and the call for more international opportunities led to the creation of a new scholarly association, the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR), and the establishment of its new journal, Voluntas, which focused on nonprofit and voluntary activities around the world. Faced with this new organization and a growing community of scholars located outside the United States, ARNOVA has continued to confront the question of how internationally-oriented it wanted to be.
… ARNOVA was an early adopter of an online listserv to facilitate communication among members and also engage with nonmembers. … With [Roger] Lohmann’s leadership, ARNOVA’s listserv became a “watering hole,” bringing together nonprofit scholars and practitioners with diverse interests.
At its June 1997 retreat the ARNOVA board adopted an electronic association initiative that included a commitment to creating a variety of electronic resources for the association and its members including a website, discussion lists, conference programs, membership directories, and other resources. The listserv, known as ARNOVA-L, grew from twelve members in 1991 to nearly 1,000 by 1999. ARNOVA embraced the internet revolution early when few would have predicted the fundamental changes it would make to communication in the new millennium. ARNOVA also created a website at a time when internet use was still not widespread. In the early 2000s, it was figuring out how to utilize its website to provide digital value to encourage membership. At that time, it created a members-only website section that included the ARNOVA Newsletter, current member news, and eventually access to ARNOVA Abstracts and a link to NVSQ.
The value of ARNOVA-L was its democratic participation. Newer scholars emerging in the 2000s “cut their teeth” through these exchanges and even those who “lurked” valued the dynamic exchanges.
At its June 1997 retreat, the board engaged in a SWOT analysis that identified a variety of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for ARNOVA. While increased foundation funding was certainly welcome, this influx of support led some to worry about the association’s reliance on grants for 60 percent of its revenue. At the December 1997 board meeting, a new task force on revenue diversification was established with the charge of exploring new, internal sources of revenue, such as paid advertisements in the conference program and in NVSQ, fees for workshops and trainings, and the sale of tape recordings of conference sessions, that might boost ARNOVA’s earned revenue. In its June 1998 report, the task force advised drawing on membership fees and other internal funds to cover the expenses of ARNOVA’s core functions and staff, and to apply foundation funds to support time-limited, special projects. This is an important realization that the foundations that funded field development would likely eventually move on to other projects, and ARNOVA would have to figure out how to strengthen the other legs of the metaphorical funding stool.
The golden age of foundation funding to build the field continued into the early 2000s with foundation funding comprising on average 50 percent of ARNOVA revenues from 2000 to 2004. But change was on the horizon as foundations began shifting funding away from building infrastructure capacity in the nonprofit sector. ARNOVA, like many other infrastructure groups in the nonprofit field, had to cope with a new budgetary environment.
ARNOVA board president Dennis Young led the transition into the New Millennium and was followed by Elizabeth Boris. Within that first year, ARNOVA transitioned into a new administrative structure with its second professional executive director, Katherine Finley, and support staff that included a program director, administrative secretary, and a communication specialist. Under Boris's leadership, the board concluded a three-year strategic planning process that emphasized building nonprofit studies, fiscal stability, responsiveness to members, and strengthening ARNOVA’s operations.
During the mid-2000s the board focused attention on building diversity throughout the organization. At the June 2005 board meeting, board member Jennifer Wade gained support for a $50,000 budget allocation ($66,250 adj). to fund researchers from underrepresented groups. At the November 2005 meeting, the board reviewed a Ford Foundation-funded diversity report, which led to the formation of a committee, chaired by board members Pier Rogers and Ramon Del Castillo, to develop a diversity plan. In 2006, the board allocated $20,000 ($25,700 adj.) for scholarships and conference attendance. It also charged the Development Committee to include scholarships for underrepresented groups in its solicitation campaign and required committees to report on their progress in achieving diversity and inclusion in their membership and work.
2007 - 2020, a maturing field and strategic directions
The nonprofit studies field matured with the formation of more educational programs, centers, institutions, and associations. These would prove to be partners as well as competitors for attention and funding. … As an outcome of [a] strategic planning process, in 2008 ARNOVA recognized the expanding role of education in its activities when it added “education” to its mission statement, ARNOVA is a leading interdisciplinary community of people dedicated to fostering through research and education, the creation, application, and dissemination of knowledge on nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, civil society and voluntary action. (Board Retreat Minutes, 2008, emphasis added)
As ARNOVA completed its fiftieth year, there were 342 schools with nonprofit management courses, 215 with nonprofit management graduate degree programs, and 47 Ph.D. programs.
Unlike previous generations of scholars who were in disciplinary departments often with few or no colleagues that shared their interests, the 2000s cohort of nonprofit management scholars experienced ARNOVA as an established association to call home and many of them taught in nonprofit education programs. These scholars needed more opportunities to publish and in 2006 the board approved expanding NVSQ from four to six issues.
In 2008, the board created a new Diversity Committee, which was approved as a standing committee in 2009. Chaired by board member Susan Ostrander, the committee was charged with developing a diversity statement and a package of related initiatives. Ostrander stressed that efforts to promote diversity are “not just about bean counting,” but rather involve institutionalizing diversity in every aspect of our work as an organization.”
ARNOVA continued to advance nonprofit studies in collaboration with other institutions including ISTR, NACC, American Humanics (now the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance), Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), Council on Foundations, and IS. Some partnerships were successful for a few years, with NACC and ARNOVA co-locating conferences for two years and ARNOVA collaborating with the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) on a joint publication. Other ARNOVA partnerships, including with ISTR, were more limited with the two organizations having booths at each other’s conferences. The infrastructure organizations in the nonprofit research field were carving out their own areas of focus, which overlapped to some degree, and had varying appetites for collaboration.
The ARNOVA-L listserv has been a means to raise questions and engage in debate but social media platforms, personal website development, and podcasts have opened up more avenues for exchange. ARNOVA started to use Twitter hashtags to communicate in real-time during the 2009 conference (Twitter #ARNOVA09 and #ARNOVA2009). Some viewed social media as a means to bring multiple perspectives on the conference experience to attendees and those outside the conference alike. But the changes also resulted in a shift in where discussions happened and who engaged in them. ARNOVA-L ceased to be the common venue for exchanges and has splintered the experience to smaller groups without a common archive because people use different platforms and follow different scholars, which mirrors the change in society writ large. One potential benefit is that social media allows more ways to engage and get to know colleagues who often post about personal experiences as well as nonprofit issues.
The year 2011 marked the expansion of several diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
…The Kresge Foundation provided funding for ARNOVA to create the Diversity Scholars and Leadership program (DSL) in 2011. The program supported graduate students from “traditionally underrepresented groups.” … In 2017, the program expanded to include Undergraduate Diversity Scholars with preference given to Black, Native American, and Latinx students. Each year about 20 students participated in a professional development seminar and networking events. ARNOVA invested in building a pipeline for diverse scholars to enter the nonprofit studies field.
ARNOVA now has multiple programs for those entering the field including Emerging Scholars Awards, Doctoral Fellows Program, Graduate and Undergraduate Diversity Scholars and Leaders Professional Development Workshop, and starting in 2021 a new Early Career Mentoring program. These efforts resulted in a growth of student membership with the ultimate goal of attracting diverse, talented scholars for the association. We see this much more systematic approach as having a greater chance of success than earlier efforts by only time will indicate whether these new programs succeed.
In 2010, ARNOVA also created an annual nonprofit public policy research symposium. The symposia themselves, now co-sponsored by Independent Sector and the journal Nonprofit Policy Forum, brought together a mix of nonprofit scholars and leaders, and, in many years, the symposia papers and briefs have been published in special issues of the journal Nonprofit Policy Forum. More recently, a new section formed in 2017 specifically focused on public policy: The Public Policy, Politics, and Law section.
With six sections and policy questions to be solved, the board appointed a task force led by board member Roseanne Mirabella to serve as section liaison as a way of signaling “greater prioritization of relationships with the sections”. … The sections identified their main challenge as competing meetings and speaker scheduling conflicts. Some board members continued to agree with the rationale that there was value in sections because they provided a personalized experience within the overall ARNOVA conference, but others were concerned that the board needed to “steward” the sections and set rules for minimum membership and greater oversight. In 2009, the board approved new policies and procedures for creating sections and added a requirement for filing annual reports. A recurring challenge for ARNOVA was lack of data. Other than the conference program events, ARNOVA had little information on sections. While registration data provided section membership levels, there were no consistent records of leadership changes or what sections were doing under the ARNOVA name.
In 2010, the board created a new type of subgroup, Common Interest Groups (CIGs), designed to be an “emergent and more fluid structural option”. The new subgroup structure proved to be a popular new vehicle for members to gather. The first CIGs approved were Governance and Critical Perspectives. By 2014, two new CIGs were approved: Early Scholars and Humanistic Understanding of Philanthropy (now called “Humanities”). The numbers grew rapidly with some evolving into sections (e.g., Early Scholars, Governance, Nonprofit Finance & Financial Management, Data and Analytics, and Critical Perspectives). As some CIGs evolved into sections, new CIGs emerged. Some create identity spaces for members to gather (e.g., LGBTQIA, Muslim Philanthropy and Civil Society, Korean Nonprofit and Philanthropy Network, Emerging Scholars on Chinese Nonprofit Research), and others focus on emerging and enduring issues such as Climate Change and Civil Society, and Researchers Interested in Grant Making Activities. CIGs provide an opportunity for people with specialized interest to engage as a new community.
In 2012, the association was rocked with the discovery that a staff member had used the ARNOVA credit card for personal expenses. ARNOVA filed a claim with its insurance company and, in 2013, was paid $62,000 on the claim ($73,271 adj). But the ramifications of the embezzlement were deeply felt across the organization. Executive Director Thom Jeavons worked with the board and members to address the malfeasance. Thom Jeavons decided to resign and Treasurer Linda Parsons was authorized to make all payments in writing until a permanent executive director was appointed.
ARNOVA hired new Executive Director Shariq Siddiqui, and he focused on building administrative capacity through better membership management and accounting systems that could provide informative metrics. In 2014, ARNOVA’s membership dipped to 824 (39 institutional, 232 students, 553 individuals). At the time, members all had different renewal dates for their memberships, and there was no system for informing members when to renew. Siddiqui sent out signed letters every month reminding members that it was time to renew their membership and simplified the invoice process. From 2015 to 2019 (when he resigned) membership grew 61 percent overall and across all categories (69 institutional, 383 students, 875 individuals). It is important to note also that the growth coincides with the expansion of the field in Asia and Africa, the continuing increase in university nonprofit education programs, and ARNOVA investment in student scholarship.
When Siddiqui resigned, the board hired Lynnette Cook to lead ARNOVA and she was immediately faced with the challenge of organizing the community and its signature conference in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cook also quickly established an effective working relationship through her introduction of an online platform, which allowed for shorter, more frequent meetings. In doing so, she built on ARNOVA’s history of online engagement.
At the 2013, membership meeting, the board reopened a discussion about whether ARNOVA should be a North American association with international membership or an international organization. In the following years, two international conferences were developed. … The first originated with Innocent Chokwuma, Director of the Ford Foundation’s West Africa office, wanted a new organization of African scholars to be independent and to work in partnership with ARNOVA. The Ford Foundation requested ARNOVA’s participation, and the board unanimously approved support for the creation of AROCSA, Association for Research on Civil Society in Africa. Founding members met at the 2015 ARNOVA conference and Ford pair for logistical support for the AROCSA conference and for African scholars to attend ARNOVA. This funding led to a doubling of participants in the Diversity Scholars and Leadership programs in 2017.
AROCSA inspired an effort to develop outlets for emerging scholars and research centers in Asia. The idea for creating the ARNOVA-Asia conference emerged with the increasing number of Asian and Middle Eastern scholars attending the ARNOVA annual conference and collective discussions about the possibilities for global engagement for the field.
In 2015, the Institute for Philanthropy at Tsinghua University provided funding for ARNOVA scholars to provide professional development workshops for emerging scholars onsite in China. These workshops were repeated and expanded to other geographic areas in 2016. ARNOVA President Mary Tschirhart, with board support, agreed to launch a 2017 ARNOVA-Asia conference. The challenge was how to fund the conference. Unlike AROCSA, foundations did not support the initiative. The host institution provided financial support with ARNOVA providing administrative support.
Conclusions and Future Directions
ARNOVA grew from a “fold-up” organization in the 1970s to a $1.2 million organization with professional staff, about 1,200 members, an annual conference that attracts on average 800 participants, and a highly regarded journal. It is a success story that might not have been, except for the intercession of individuals and institutions, especially funders, at critical junctures in the association’s history.
ARNOVA has often changed as nonprofit studies have changed, perhaps most dramatically with the change of name, but now the association can think more critically about what the field has accomplished, what can be improved, and what practices should be changed.
While there seems to be good reason for ARNOVA to return to its roots and encourage deeper exploration of social movements, civic engagement, and other forms of voluntary action, there are also grounds for it to consider expanding its scope beyond those who study nonprofits and more fully embrace social or common good institutions as equally important to the ARNOVA mission. SEES provides spaces as a section within ARNOVA for consideration of hybrid organizations, however, a question for the association is whether it is time to consider a broader accommodation. Should ARNOVA’s boundaries be set largely according to the United States’ legal definition of the nonprofit sector or should the association be more fully open to the study of all types of private organizations that advance a social mission, whether nonprofit or not?
In terms of ARNOVA’s field-improving work, one important area for consideration relates to journal outlets for nonprofit research. ARNOVA invested in building NVSQ into a highly regarded, six-issue journal. Are there now enough journals that will accept nonprofit 44 scholars’ contributions to knowledge and are these open to scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds. If more journals are needed, does ARNOVA want to follow disciplinary associations that have multiple journals to meet the evolving needs of the field? How does ARNOVA ensure that NVSQ brings forward the best work, regardless of research methodology? How does ARNOVA encourage thinking broadly about the sector, new theoretical frameworks, and the significance of new findings?
ARNOVA has an opportunity to advocate for a more diverse and inclusive field, defined by identity, experience, and discipline. ARNOVA has consistently had diversity as a board priority and in recent years the investments in building the pipeline and actively recruiting diverse scholars to leadership positions seem to be making an impact.
ARNOVA now has 12 sections and 12 CIGs. Subgroups provide ARNOVA members with ways to share scholarly interests and provide a pipeline for building leadership capacity. But they also raise the recurring tension of the fractionalization of ARNOVA versus ARNOVA as a widely shared, communal experience. In ARNOVA’s early years, the small group of scholars knew each other, and, even into the 1990s, the energy of building a new field created tight bonds among members. But as membership increased to over 1,300 in 2019, the conference grew into a different experience where scholars could network within their shared areas of expertise through sections. But it is important to note than only 43% of members belong to a section.
It is important to note that nonprofit studies scholars also meet up at disciplinary conferences and ISTR with more expansive options for management scholars who participate in Academy of Management, American Society for Public Administration, Public Management Research Association, and Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management conferences. All of this further begs the question of how ARNOVA should differentiate itself from these other conference venues and especially, how it can provide a forum for an interplay of view beyond those in management and public administration.
From its inception, ARNOVA has provided a forum for scholars who asked questions outside traditional disciplines. Now that nonprofit studies is a field of study, there is an established presence, particularly nonprofit management scholars, within schools of public affairs and disciplinary departments, such as social work.
ARNOVA’s mission emphasizes the positive impacts of its members’ work to make society better. This signals an openness to ask big questions in a tumultuous time of political and social polarization, challenges to the rule of law, climate change impacts, and rising authoritarianism just to name a few. ARNOVA, as a multidisciplinary association that embraces diverse perspectives, can be the place to bring minds together, engage in discussions, and map paths forward. As always, it is up to the members to make sure the association stays relevant to their work, and engages a broad community to “improve civil society and human life.”