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Remarks by Thomasina Borkman, Recipient of ARNOVA Distinguished Achievement & Leadership Award

Posted By Fatima Hussain, Thursday, December 8, 2016
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2016

Acceptance of ARNOVA Award for Distinguished Achievement & Leadership in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research

Thomasina Borkman

November 18, 2016


I am very honored and thrilled to accept this award from ARNOVA.  ARNOVA has been my intellectual professional association for over 30 years!  Thank you ARNOVA and George Mason University, my academic home for over 32 years.  And, thank you Jeff Brudney for the thoughtful introduction.  Jeff has been a ray of sunshine at ARNOVA conferences always having uplifting comments whenever I see him.


I turned 80 years old last month!  From this vantage point looking back is easier then looking ahead. It gives me a chance to review my appreciation for ARNOVA and the wonderful people I’ve known over the years as well as to summarize changes I have witnessed about my own research on self-help groups the past 46 years.


My work has been research with what David Horton Smith (2000) calls Grassroots Associations –locally based, informal associations, using volunteers, largely without paid staff; David discusses them as the frequent-in-number but largely ignored associations analogous to the large invisible matter of the astrophysical universe. Grassroots Associations are especially flexible as they can be created around many innovative ideas; but, they are also fragile--they are so easy to create but often do not last long--ephemeral.  


I have discovered one organizational form that is a sustainable alternative to a bureaucracy; the 12 step-12-tradition groups of which the best known is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which has been copied by 80-100 other anonymous groups.   AA is 80 years old and probably 10 or more other 12 step-12 tradition groups are over 50 years old. Grassroots organizations are especially difficult to study because they are so informal and are not consistently in national data bases.


When I received my Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University in 1969, the contemporary women’s movement had begun but had not made much headway.  I fared very well with a fulltime tenure level assistant professor job; but, I was feeling somewhat like an oddball--having a Ph.D. My high school girlfriends had mostly dropped out of college when they found a husband and were raising babies inside the white picket fences. Because I was married I was not totally strange within the context of the times. 


Sociology as a discipline focuses on the study of how social systems and their components achieve order and stability AND how they evolve and change (The kinds of change we face has become a concern after this presidential election). I was well trained in the classics (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim) and contemporary theorists (Robert Merton was my favorite theorist at Columbia, Talcott Parsons, and so forth). But I had only intellectual knowledge.  In the following years I would experience evolution and change from (1) the women’s movement from which I benefited hugely in my own personal life and in my career, (2) my area of research—the development of self-help groups from new beginnings in the 1970s through changes and institutionalization in the US by 2000 and (3) the development of interdisciplinary research and professionalization of the nonprofit organization and voluntary action area (the Third Sector), especially by contributing to ARNOVA, and internationally to ISTR (International Society of Third Sector Research).     


Researching a Movement from its Beginning to its Institutionalization

I started teaching in 1969. In 1970, I found an unlikely group of people who stutter and attended their public presentation to parents of children who stutter. They were frightened to speak in public as they all stuttered but they persevered. They were so courageous I fell in love with them.  I was very curious and asked them if I could study them. They were thrilled to have anyone interested in them (e.g., they had sent a letter to 100 speech therapists offering to help them with parents of children who stuttered and received zero replies). I conducted participant observation, attending their weekly meetings for about 2 years, and did a mail questionnaire survey of all the groups I could find in the English-speaking world (see Borkman 1999). 


What were they?  (Self-help groups had no name as such until 1976.)  They were not a social club—they had no parties; they had goals of individual fluency and personal improvement; plus, they had goals of helping other people who stuttered.  But, they did not behave like a philanthropy. They were a registered 501(C)(3) but they did not behave like one--they operated like a group.   They were a registered nonprofit only because they had a member (a lawyer) who applied for the legal status.  (You cannot learn these types of details through national databases; you can only learn this level of detail through qualitative research.) They were very puzzling and intellectually fascinating.  In the world survey, I found a New Zealand group that had disbanded because they met their goals.  I had never read or heard of anything like that in the organizational literature.  I was hooked—what on earth is this new creature that cannot be explained by any type of group or organization I had ever heard or read about.


In 1972 as part of the women’s movement I attended a consciousness-raising group (CR group) which was a form of a self-help group.  In a CR group women tell their personal stories in a sharing circle; they do not quote facts, data or reference experts.  I had to learn how to think about and talk about my life and career as a human being rather than the “objective” researcher. Learning to reflect on and honor my own experience helped formulate what became my best known theoretical formulation about self-help groups—their development and use of experiential knowledge—the authority of embodied and lived experience of peers (see Borkman 1976).


In retrospect, I recognize that I was privileged to observe a movement from its near beginning buoyed by and connected with the civil rights and women’s movements, disability movement, and other movements of the 1970s-80s and later. Self-help groups are groups of individuals who share an illness or stigmatizing condition and meet to improve or ameliorate their situation.  They occur in civil society--not part of the market place or government; are self-governing without professional facilitators; and they engage in mutual aid without fees.  Their technology is the “sharing circle” of exchanging narratives of lived experience with the focal issue through which they develop collectivized experiential knowledge about handling their situation.


Around 2000, self-help groups became institutionalized as support groups with professionals appropriating them, changing their name to generic support groups, and hosting them routinely in hospitals and clinics (see Archibald 2007). However, they are also institutionalized as the original self-governing groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous that lay people initiate; many are now online or telephone-based groups and are known as support groups or self-help support groups. I estimated that a large minority of the US population understood self-help groups well enough to initiate one themselves by 1990.  There were two examples in the Washington Post just last month.  First, the Washington Post (Oct. 31, 2016) reported a story of local mothers who work in the legal medical marijuana business in Washington, D.C., but are concerned “what to tell their young kids” if they come home smelling like marijuana. “The stigma has her questioning how to discuss her profession with her children.”  She formed a support group with other moms in the marijuana business “to navigate child-rearing in the murky age of legalization.”  The second example was in the Tuesday Health and Science section in October that discussed a man who had an extremely rare form of cancer.  One of his major complaints in the article was that he could not find a support group of others with his type of cancer!


Participation in ARNOVA

Over time I became more interdisciplinary and more international in orientation.  ARNOVA’s explicit acknowledgement of values and discussion about their role in research and practice has been key to ARNOVA becoming my professional association home.  The ARNOVA Board of Directors statement yesterday reaffirming our values after the Presidential election I heartily endorse.


I have been a Consulting Editor of JVAR and then NVSQ, was on the Board in my early days, contributed to the development of the Community and Grassroots section (CGAP) in 1995 with David Horton Smith, Carl Milofsky, Richard Sundeen, and others.  I was President of ARNOVA in 1991-1992 during a critical period when it changed from a voluntary association to a paid staff nonprofit. David Horton Smith (2001), founder, in a history of ARNOVA divided it into 3 periods: (1) formative period of 1971-1976, (2) the volunteer leadership period of 1977-1994, and the (3) paid executive director period: late 1994-to present.  During my era of the middle period, Presidents were working as volunteers, not as figureheads. The only paid person was a part time administrator.  The association was changing from being narrowly focused on voluntary action to broaden its scope to all voluntary nonprofit sector studies including citizen participation, civil society, and philanthropy.  Nonprofit management centers were developing: how should they be incorporated into an expanded ARNOVA?   How could we expand the disciplines that participated such as law, business, history, public administration, and other fields?  International NGOs were also increasing with pressure to develop an international association: should ARNOVA take that on or cooperate in helping birth a new organization? 


Three sets of Presidents guided us through the major changes from voluntary association to paid staff nonprofit. Robert Herman before me in 1989-1990 stewarded discussion and change process, including name changes of the (JVAR) journal to NVSQ and association from AVAS to ARNOVA.  I as President continued the process rewriting the By-Laws, and expanding the focus of the Journal and changing its editor to Carl Milofsky.  I enlisted more volunteering effort from the officers and the Board with the unusual amount of work necessary for the transition.  Following me were Co-Presidents Kirsten Gronbjerg and Richard Steinberg who importantly wrote successful grant proposals that provided funding for a greatly expanded ARNOVA including a more permanent executive office at Indiana University where is remains.  


During my tenure, we also considered whether ARNOVA should become the international organization.  After many long discussions and considerations, we decided to cooperate in the development of a separate ISTR  which became housed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I honor Virginia Hodgkinson who is here today—she favored a separate international organization.  Many ARNOVA colleagues participate in ISTR’s international conferences; I see many of them at those conferences. ARNOVA and ISTR have led me to collaborative research with colleagues in Japan, Sweden, UK and Israel--eye opening and mind boggling! If you want to understand the organization or phenomena you are researching, study it comparatively—in another culture, country or context. 


Now, to conclude! I’ve been retired since 2007 but active professionally on a limited scale—editing an international journal, part time research on an NIH funded project (see Borkman et al 2016), some ARNOVA-related work (e.g., Munn-Giddings, et al. 2016) and some mentoring. The greatest part of participating in ARNOVA has been of course the people: Carl Milofsky, Joyce Rothschild, Jon Van Til, Lehn Benjamin and so many others—Ann Dill, David Horton Smith, Elizabeth Boris; my Canadian friends such as Vic Murray, Laurie Mook and  Brenda Zimmerman, among others. I have learned so much, been challenged and supported by colleagues and friends.  I’ll close on the old adage about volunteering: the more you participate and give to others, the more you receive! It’s win-win!     




Archibald, Matthew E.  2007. The Evolution of Self-Help: How a Health Movement Became an Institution. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Borkman, T. "Experiential Knowledge:  A New Concept for the Analysis of   Self‑Help Group,"  Social Service Review, 50 (September):  445‑456, 1976. 

Borkman, T., Understanding Self-Help/Mutual Aid: Experiential Learning in the Commons. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Borkman, T., Stunz, A., & Kaskutas, L.A. Developing an experiential definition of recovery: Participatory research with recovering substance abusers from multiple pathways. Substance Use and Misuse, 51, 9, 2016. DOI:10.3109/10826084.2016.1160119.


Munn-Giddings, C., Oka, T.,  Borkman, T.,  Matzat, J.,  Montaño & Chikoto. Self-help and mutual aid group volunteering in Smith, D. Horton, Stebbins, R. A. & Grotz, J. (Eds) Palgrave Handbook of Volunteering, Civic Participation, and Nonprofit Associations, 2016. Palgrave Macmillan UK.


Smith, David Horton. Grassroots Associations.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000.

Smith, David Horton. A History of ARNOVA.  Indianapolis, IN: ARNOVA, 2001.


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