Acceptance Comments: Richard Steinberg, November 16, 2023
Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action
52nd Annual Conference, Orlando, FL
I am proud and grateful to accept the Distinguished Achievement and Leadership in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Award. Thank you to my friends Dennis Young and Elinor Brown for nominating me and to the members of the award committee.
I am at the stage of life where I try to assess how I’ve done. Like everyone, I’ve had my setbacks and self-doubts, but now I have accomplished everything I set out to do. How, you might ask? By retrospectively rewriting what I set out to do. Try it out sometime.
My first exposure to the themes that have shaped my research career was early in my life, around third or fourth grade. My sister Sharon and I enjoyed making pretty things – potholders, beaded rings, drawings – and formed an organization to sell them door-to-door in my neighborhood in Baltimore. Long before Ben and Jerry and Newman’s Own we promised that all profits would be donated to UNICEF, and so Uniloom was born. Somewhere around fifth grade, my older brother Michael told me that Uniloom was undercapitalized, and we ought to issue shares of stock. Sounded good, but I didn’t quite understand and so he designed our initial public offering. Several hours later, through insider trading, Michael had bankrupted Uniloom. It was then that I learned of the importance of the nondistribution constraint.
My next exposure came late in my doctoral program in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. My first two thesis topics didn’t excite me, I needed to find a research assistantship, and I had just read a book by David Collard called Altruism and Economy: A Study in Non-Selfish Economics. He argued that economists such as Adam Smith and Francis Edgeworth used to work on altruism, but their ability to make progress was limited by the tools available at the time. He pointed out that with the advancements in economic and game theory, the time was ripe to return to the subject, and he was right. Then, Penn Regional Science Professor Tom Reiner and Princeton Geography Professor Julian Wolpert needed an RA for their NSF-funded Metropolitan Philanthropy Project, and I was hired. My thesis chair, Bob Inman, was a fine economist but cared little for the subject of philanthropy, so Wolpert and Reiner were my first mentors. The Metropolitan Philanthropy Project provided enough social and intellectual support for a thesis, but not a career, as philanthropy was a fringe topic in economics at the time.
That is when I was fortunate to encounter a young assistant professor then in the Penn Law School, Henry Hansmann. He put me in touch with John Simon, the head of PONPO, the Program on Nonprofit Organizations at Yale University. PONPO was the central player developing the field of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations, with faculty including many of the founders of our field – John, Henry, Estelle James, Susan Rose-Ackerman, Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, Peter Dobkin Hall, Dennis Young, and many more. They found my work interesting, did interesting work, and provided a nice scholarly community that left me wanting to devote my career to the field.
As a doctoral student, I was able to present in their seminar series at Yale several times, and they supported the final year of my dissertation. Woody Powell invited me to write a chapter in the first edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook called Nonprofits and the Market. Years later, I was able to pay back their many kindnesses, serving as faculty adviser to three distinct programs similar to the doctoral student workshops at ARNOVA and ISTR, co-editing the second edition of the Handbook, and starting an interdisciplinary seminar series modeled after PONPO’s. The seminar was known as WIMPS (Workshop in Multidisciplinary Philanthropic Studies) until the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy required that the name be changed to PRW, the Philanthropy Research Workshop, in return for funding and support.
Much of my career has been spent building the fields of nonprofit and philanthropic studies, from my service as Co-President of ARNOVA with Kirsten Grønbjerg to membership on the governing counsel of the Aspen Institute Nonprofit Research Fund to helping with the design of educational programs to service on editorial boards. On the bad days when I felt like none of my research was important, I could always do the right thing and work on the infrastructure of the field.
As Burt Weisbrod once told me, you are never as smart as you think you are on a good day, and you are never as dumb as you think you are on a bad day. I’ve had both but let me tell you about my research on this good day. My best work pioneered a new idea that others extended in subsequent literature, rather than extending existing ideas or providing one more slightly superior empirical study. Here are some examples of what I think of as my best work.
My papers on how managers, donors, and regulators should view fundraising costs questions the common-sense conclusion that money spent on fundraising comes at the expense of money spent on mission. I showed that fundraising cost ratios contain no information whatsoever on the cost-effectiveness of a gift. Specifically, I showed that for nonprofits that want to maximize particular objectives, a marginal donation of a dollar will result in a one dollar increase in the amount spent on mission regardless of fundraising cost ratios. In the more general case, the cost-effectiveness of a gift is more complicated, but depends on factors other than the fundraising cost ratio. Subsequent literature has attempted to measure “overhead aversion,” a behavioral rather than rational response to information on fundraising costs and found that the phenomenon is real but sensitive to contextual and other factors. My research changed the path of the debate and was influential in court cases where I served as an expert witness, in the revision of IRS form 990 and in discussions by various charity rating services.
Dennis Young asked, “If not for profit, for what?” in his book by that name. Another paper of mine attempted to uncover the answer by assuming that nonprofit budgeting practices are designed to further their mission. I turned that around, taking data on budgeting practices to determine what mission would make them behave that way in my paper “The Revealed Objective Functions of Nonprofit Organizations.” This started a small subfield of publications looking at other dimensions of revealed objectives.
My research on the relationship between government spending on social services and charitable donations established a more general warm-glow formulation of crowding out than Jim Andreoni’s subsequent specification in which the act of giving can be a substitute or complement to the charitable activity funded by donations.
My current research, mostly joint with Eleanor Brown and Liza Taylor, develops a new framework for constructing theories that explain why activities occur in particular combinations of sectors and establishing which combinations of sectors ought to conduct these activities. We call this the Sectoral Advantage Framework, and I hope it grows to be influential. Towards that end, please attend tomorrow’s parallel session at 10:15 in the Veranda Room.
Part of field building is community building. And nothing builds a community like having fun together. My band, C-3 Blooie and the Advocates, had its world premiere performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. I was C-3 Blooie, and the Advocates were an affiliated C-4 Band. Band members included one ringer (Roland Kushner on lead guitar), Dennis Young and Peter Dobkin Hall on banjo, Mel Gray on percussion, Linda Parsons (I think) on flute, and Jay Boris on bass, and myself on rhythm guitar. We did not perform on the main stage at the Kennedy Center. Rather, ARNOVA held a banquet in one of their banquet rooms. The Kennedy Center, a well-managed nonprofit, included a sound board in every banquet room and ARNOVA paid the $100 for an operator to allow us, and others to perform.
In 2014, several of my then doctoral students decided to submit a joke paper proposal to ARNOVA on “Zombie Philanthropy” and to our surprise and joy, the paper was accepted. We estimated regressions with fixed effects (if we didn’t like the numbers, we fixed them), analyzed religious giving by the born-again born-again, showed neuroimages of the unfortunate interactions between subjects and researchers, and reported unbiased coefficients with n = 0. Thanks to my coauthors Barbara Duffy, Ruth Hansen, Yuan Tian, and Russell James.
I’d like to conclude with the importance of ARNOVA in my personal life. The annual conference has been a highlight in my sometimes-troubled life every year for decades now. I am so grateful that there is still a community that cares about the research topics I care about, respects good research across disciplines, and provides strong mutual support. Thanks again for this award and the conference that goes with it.