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Acceptance Comments: Alan Abramson, November 17, 2022

Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action

51st Annual Conference, Raleigh, NC

Thanks so much, Pier, and the other members of the award committee – Roseanne Mirabella, Monika Hudson, and Heather MacIndoe – for selecting me for this wonderful award.


I am truly humbled to receive this recognition and to follow in the footsteps of so many amazing people.


I hope this isn’t in the category of too much information, but it was extra special to receive news of the award a couple of months ago on the day I was on a liquid diet in preparation for my 5-year colonoscopy that I was scheduled to have the next day (and which incidentally turned out fine).  As you can imagine, the news of the award was welcome relief from the jello and Gatorade diet that I was on that day.


In addition to the members of the award committee, there are several others I would like to thank.


First, I am grateful to my nominators, Elizabeth Boris and Dennis Young, for their support and friendship and for completing the nomination form, which as someone who has nominated others in the past, I know is not a trivial task.


I also count Elizabeth, along with Virginia Hodgkinson and Les Salamon, as important mentors – as well as friends – who have taught me quite a bit about research and the research profession and have provided me invaluable support over the years.


I began my nonprofit research career at the Urban Institute in 1980 working with Les Salamon, who, as many of you know, unfortunately passed away too soon last year.  I still remember when Les and I went to lunch in the Fall of 1980 with Brian O’Connell, who was just getting the organization Independent Sector off the ground.  Brian asked Les and I – or mostly Les at the time – to examine the potential impact of the Reagan budget cuts on nonprofits.  I have spent many years since explaining how our research found that the federal cuts would amount to this (hand wave) and private giving was this (hand wave), and that there was no way that private giving would offset the federal cuts in the near-term, as the Reagan administration was suggesting at the time.


After I spent a dozen or so years at the Urban Institute, in 1994 Elizabeth Boris invited me to work with her as her deputy director at the Aspen Institute, and I can’t imagine ever having a more supportive boss, which incidentally I think she hates being called.  Ironically, soon after I went to Aspen, Elizabeth left Aspen for the Urban Institute.  She was a strong supporter of my succeeding her at Aspen as program director, for which I will always be grateful. 


Virginia Hodgkinson was the chair of our governing council at Aspen’s Nonprofit Sector Research Fund and has also been a wise, supportive presence in my life for many years.  I had the chance to talk with Virginia by phone last week, and she sends her regards to all here today.


Beyond these mentors, I am especially grateful for the colleagues I have had in my positions at the Urban Institute, Aspen Institute, and George Mason University.  Cinthia Schuman was a wonderful partner at Aspen and remains a good friend.  At Mason, I can’t say how appreciative I am of the colleagueship of Stefan Toepler, Mirae Kim, and some years ago Lehn Benjamin.  They are all smart, warm people, and it has been a true pleasure to work with them. 


And going to my  Mason office almost everyday as I do is more a reflection of my terrific nonprofit colleagues than of any interest in getting away from home and my husband, Alex.  Alex, I want to thank you for your love and support over the 40 years we’ve been together. I’m not sure you’ve ever actually read anything I’ve written, but I do still remember your papering our home with the pages of my dissertation for the party we had when I finally finished it.  Our son Ben is not here today, but he has been an extraordinary part of our family for the 22 years of his life.


I want to say that it is a proud, out gay man who is receiving this award today.  I don’t know if I’m the first LGBT person to get this important award, but I am very pleased to be this year’s recipient.  I know there are many LGBT people at the lunch today and am grateful that over the years it has become much easier for us to be out about our sexual identity.  At the same time, I don’t doubt that there are also some LGBT people here who are not out.  I want to say to all LGBT folks, whether out or not, that you are in a safe space and have many friends here at ARNOVA.


I also want to thank the many ARNOVA members and staff who have made this such a wonderful association.  ARNOVA executive directors Shariq Siddiqui and Lynnette Cook and their predecessors and staffs have been a pleasure to work with. 


With the remainder of my remarks, I want to continue to talk briefly about ARNOVA and the field of nonprofit research that has meant so much to me. 


To do so, I will draw on recent work I have done with wonderful colleagues Brenda Bushouse and Greg Witkowski on the history of ARNOVA at its 50th anniversary.  You may have seen excerpts of our history on wall hangings near the conference registration table, and the full article will be in a forthcoming special issue of NVSQ.  And for those who want to hear more about ARNOVA’s history and what it may portend for its future, Brenda, Greg, and I have a session at 9 am on Saturday morning, which is the special enviable timeslot given to former ARNOVA presidents and lifetime award recipients.


In the work that Brenda, Greg, and I did in reviewing ARNOVA’s history, several persistent issues or tensions surfaced.  I would like to talk briefly about three of these issues today, with more on Saturday.


The first issue is the possible tension between two important ARNOVA goals:  building a supportive research community and improving the quality of nonprofit research.


Some see these goals as “either/or.”  That is, ARNOVA can EITHER focus on forging a warm, supportive culture and sense of community OR encourage scholars to critique each others’ research in order to improve the quality of the work.  In writing our history, we saw some worrying in the late 1990s and early 2000s that ARNOVA was too concerned with building a welcoming community and too little focused on improving the quality of nonprofit research.


However, another perspective sees these goals as “both/and.”  I am firmly in this camp, and believe that ARNOVA can, has, and should foster both a warm, welcoming scholarly community and work to raise the quality of nonprofit research. 


In an evaluation of ARNOVA in a 1998 report, Boston College sociologist Paul Schervish wrote, “The strategic challenge facing AROVA is to pursue scholarship unapologetically, and simultaneously to pursue initiatives to form community.”  Schervish went on to conclude that, “The grace of ARNOVA is its ability to offer the best of insight with the best of intentions.”  Schervish quoted one of his  informants as saying, “’ARNOVA is a safe place to get good criticism.’”


25 years later, I think Schervish’s conclusions still hold.  Compared to members of some other scholarly disciplines and associations, I believe ARNOVAn’s are especially good at offering each other constructive criticism. 


Like Paul Schervish, I see strengthening both community and scholarship as a both/and rather than an either/or.  Let’s continue to be good at both community and scholarship.  And please come to our George Mason reception this evening at 7 pm where we’ll be very focused on building community through eating and drinking.


A second tension or issue for ARNOVA is the proper intellectual boundaries of our field and association. 


For many decades, our field has largely been defined by the law; we study what qualifies in law as tax-exempt, nonprofit entities. 


However, one of the early lessons I learned in my home field of political science was that while the law is an important shaper of behavior, there are other significant drivers as well.


With all due respect to the legal scholars in the room, I want to ask whether the boundaries of our field should continue to be defined mostly by legal provisions  Is our deepest interest just in deepening understanding of entities that are tax exempt under the law.  Or, should we be more open to exploring other private entities that have a primary purpose of doing good, whether they are nonprofits, businesses, unincorporated groups, or individuals. 


To be sure, ARNOVA has already made some room for scholars studying social enterprises and social movements, although my sense is that even in these categories our focus has largely been on nonprofits.


Thirty years ago our association made a significant name change from AVAS to ARNOVA that signaled the membership’s interest not just in voluntary action research but in the study of the full range of nonprofit activities.  Is it time once again to think about changing our name?


I’m not entirely convinced that we should change our association name to indicate that our interest goes beyond nonprofits to more fully include other mission-oriented entities.  But, I am persuaded that we should, at least, be having more discussion about the pro’s and con’s of doing so. 


My third point is that I am also convinced that we should engage more deeply with government around its support for nonprofits and our research field. 


As many now hopefully know, government has a huge stake in the strength of the nonprofit sector:

  • Nonprofits make up roughly 10% of the private workforce;
  • Government contracts with nonprofits to provide a broad range of critical health, education, human, and other services; and
  • Nonprofits are the way that many people engage in civic affairs.


With government’s important interest in the capacity of nonprofits, I would argue that government needs to make a greater investment in the capacity of nonprofits and in the study of these important institutions. 


As far as nonprofit research in particular, government should be providing increased funding for nonprofit research, including producing more data on the activities of nonprofits. 


In a paper that was recently made available online before its publication in NVSQ, I point out some of the field’s unmet data needs as well as some existing data that the federal government already collects that is not being fully utilized by researchers in part because it needs further massaging before it’s ready for prime time.


Beyond greater government support for nonprofit data, NSF and other federal agencies also need to increase their funding of nonprofit research.  I am pleased that NSF has provided initial seed funding for a new platform for nonprofit survey data that is being developed by a partnership of scholars at American University, the Urban Institute, Georgia Tech University, and my home institution, George Mason University.  Sustained funding is needed for this platform effort that will supply some of the critical missing data on nonprofits.  Come to a session tomorrow at 4 pm to hear more about this new platform and how you can engage with it.


We are the ones who need to make a case for government to provide more support for nonprofit data and research.  As we have been taught by those who study fundraising, funding usually doesn’t just come floating in the door but has to be asked for.  So let’s ask government for the support that nonprofit data and research deserve.  Let’s have Capitol Hill Day the next time ARNOVA meets in DC.  Or, even better, let’s find other ways now to make our case to government, including by joining with other sectorwide groups like Independent Sector, the National Council on Nonprofits, the Council on Foundations, and the Aspen Institute.


I could go on, including by talking about the importance of continuing to strengthen our DEI efforts and researcher-practitioner partnerships but let me stop here, and invite you to wake up on Saturday morning and attend our 9 am session on planning for ARNOVA’s future by better understanding its past.


Again, I want to thank the association and it members who have been an important part of my life for many years and have made this an amazing community to be a part of.   

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