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Remarks from David Renz, Recipient of Distinguished Achievement Award

Posted By Administration, Thursday, December 28, 2017


Acceptance Speech of David Renz

On Receipt of the


2017 ARNOVA Distinguished Achievement in Leadership and Nonprofit

and Voluntary Action Research Award


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

Annual Conference Luncheon Plenary Session

November 16, 2017


What an honor it is to be standing before you to receive this award.  Thank you for your warm response!  It is indeed a privilege to be included in the company of the people who have received this exceptional award!  I am delighted but a bit surprised to receive an award of this significance for what I’ve been doing, because I’ve really just been trying to join all of you in making a difference in this field – but I certainly do appreciate it!  The truth is, the work I’ve been doing and whatever success I’ve experienced throughout my career reflect the good fortune of having an incredible network of colleagues, collaborators, and partners with whom to work.  Many of you have studied and written of the power and significance of networks.  Frankly, that is exemplified in what it is we experience and have as the power of ARNOVA, and it’s phenomenal in the ways it’s helped me in my career.  A large share of my professional and career progress derives from the connections of those networks that have all started here, which is my scholarly home.  So I want to thank all of you for making this possible! 


ARNOVA is a community – a community of scholars, to be sure, but a rather unique scholarly community, because ARNOVA’s members truly appreciate, believe in and are committed to understanding and strengthening the power of voluntarism, philanthropy, civil society, social action, and the nonprofit sector.   One of the things I’ve always valued about working with you -- all of you in this room -- is that the people who are in this actually care.  Beyond making civil society the subject of your research (although you do that well), the people here are making a difference in all sorts of ways. 


I am really indebted to so many of you – colleagues, friends, collaborators and partners – for your support and encouragement, for your challenging and prodding, and for your friendship.  There are many to whom I am indebted for this support.  First and foremost, as many of you certainly know (and some of you may have cited), is my long-time research and writing partner, Bob Herman.  Some people have told me they think the words “Herman and Renz” were trademarked and had to go together – and that’s sort of true!  How exceptional is it to find a colleague with whom you share so many interests and perspectives?  Our partnership was such a natural!  Both our backgrounds were organizational studies, we’re both interested in public service, we both had an interest in connecting with communities and doing community work as well as scholarly work – it’s just phenomenal when you have a faculty partner whose interests are so similar.  For all of our nearly identical interests, though, I will admit that some have told me they looked at Bob and me as a bit of comic relief.  (For those of you who do not know it, Bob is a bit taller than I – so whenever we showed up together, I have to admit, it was something of a “Mutt and Jeff” scenario.)


And, I have to say, I owe much to our talented team of colleagues at the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership and our Department of Public Affairs at UMKC – notably Mark Culver, Cindy Laufer, Brent Never and, especially, Scott Helm, with whom I’ve created so many programs and initiatives, especially in the area of social entrepreneurship.  And along the way, it’s been a great privilege to work with doctoral students who have become valued colleagues and research partners – folks like Fredrik Andersson, Erin Nelson, Jurgen Willems.  To this day I have the privilege of continuing to work with them. 


Another delightful community of colleagues with whom I’ve worked for about 20 years (I am a bit shocked it’s been this long!) is the network of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council – an incredible network of academic entrepreneurs from the ARNOVA world and beyond who have helped expand and sustain the scope of our research and teaching but, equally important, many of these centers have created vehicles for engaging and serving communities and their leaders across the US and many other parts of the world – part of that work of blending, boundary spanning, and connecting.


I’ve been especially passionate about and motivated to work to bridge the world of academe – of well-grounded scholarship and theory – and the world of practice.  I care a lot about helping to support our nonprofit communities’ leaders as they do their work, and I’ve tried to maintain a balance of writing for both the scholarly and practice worlds.  I’ve often been offered platforms for this work by the leaders of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, the association whose annual conference is again blended with this year’s ARNOVA conference – and a key partner in crime for this work has been Ruth McCambridge of the Nonprofit Quarterly, with whom and for whom I’ve had the privilege of writing a number of articles for the practice community. 


And last and certainly most important: I have to express my gratitude and appreciation to my love and partner in life, my wife, Sandy Renz.  As those of you who know me can attest, she clearly must be a saint to put up with all of the complications I bring to one’s life; trying to bring balance to our world and a semblance of sanity to our family life!


I have had the opportunity to watch the world of nonprofit and philanthropic studies grow and develop in a variety of fascinating and often delightful ways during my career.  It’ been a great ride for us as we have grown to become an increasingly legitimate and widely-accepted field.  In so many ways, the field is stronger than ever, with high levels of credibility, acceptance, and support in the academy.  Many indicators reflect that our efforts to develop both substance and legitimacy are bearing fruit, and this is great.  We and our work are more accepted and even embraced in the larger academic environment, and it’s fun to see so many institutions actively seeking out and investing in the field of nonprofit and philanthropic studies. 


That said, with this new level of legitimacy “inside,” I see a critical need to explain what we do to the larger world, especially beyond the academic world, if we are to realize what most of us truly value about our field and our work.  We cannot afford to become self-absorbed in the academic as we continue to develop our work – there’s too much at stake in the larger world!


I am concerned, for example, that we (like all in the academic world) need to do more to build bridges to link the world of higher education with the rest of society and our communities.  Like many of you, I was taken aback by the turn of last year’s elections.  It is clearer than ever, to me, that we need to develop or renew the legitimacy and credibility of our institutions with the people of the communities we serve as we counteract the perceptions of elitism that pervade much of our national discourse and polarize peoples’ response to our work.   We are uniquely well-positioned to do this given the foci of our work in communities but, ironically, the process of sustaining and enhancing our legitimacy inside the academy can interfere with investing time and energy in doing so.  We need to sustain and expand our connections with the grassroots of our communities and the practice world, and exemplify how our work as educators and scholars offers unique value in support of all people.


Further, we have some detractors who misunderstand the purpose and nature of what we do and advocate.  They worry (and argue) that we are stealing the soul and meaning of voluntarism, philanthropy, and the work of the nonprofit sector.  They’re pointing at people like me – educators who are trying to improve the sophistication and professional capacity of nonprofit leaders and managers.  They misunderstand, but their warnings have some significance, and we are well advised to take these kinds of disconnects seriously and work to share and explain our work and intentions more fully and effectively in our communities.


I think the next generation of nonprofit development is going to be fascinating, because the sector is going to change in significant ways as we address the implications of the redefinition of governmental functions and roles that currently is underway in the US and many other nations of the world.  As the role and even legitimacy of governmental work continues to shift, we need to be ready to support the sector and even facilitate a productive response to the new demands that will be put on the sector. 


At this fascinating time in the evolution of civil society, we have competing tensions to address, and more will come.  Similar to many ethical conundrums, we’re increasingly going to be pushed to reconcile inconsistent competing principles and we need to be ready.  To a large degree, the choices are not good options versus bad options – they are good versus good.  We need to clarify where we stand and what we value as a professional community – to know what we stand for, clarify what is at stake as conditions change, be honest and reflective, and work together as a community to do our best to serve authentically and openly.  And one of the greatest challenges is that, as each of us works to sustain and enhance our credibility and position in the scholarly world (including the pressures of securing tenure and sustaining funding for our work), we get pulled further and further way from the world that is at the heart of what we as a field developed to support. 


I am proud to say that ARNOVA, and those of us who are its members, are at the core of the work to understand, embrace, and tackle these tensions.  Together, supporting and encouraging each other, we have the capacity to strengthen civil society in ways that also continue to advance the field and our work. 


It is such a privilege to work with all of you to define, understand, explore and embrace these challenges and opportunities.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the acknowledgement this award confers.  I look forward to my continued work with you as we all continue to develop, individually and as a field.  Thank you very much!


David Renz

November 16, 2017

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