Nonprofit Studies and Civil Society

by Dr. Salvatore Alaimo, assistant professor, School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration

There are now approximately 200 graduate programs across the United States that focus on studying nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. Many of them reside within public administration schools or programs with some in business schools. More recently some have emerged to brand themselves as more stand alone programs such as the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University or the new Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership (MPNL) at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). The emergence of these programs began mostly in the 1990’s and we have seen substantial growth since, in part spurred by the fact that nonprofit organizations now employ approximately 10% of our entire workforce, larger than some entire industries. However, their short history has resulted with the general public not being as familiar with them as they might be with a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) or a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), two programs that have much longer tenure. This lacking of awareness does not reflect a lack of importance.

Civil Society is defined as “A sphere of ideas, values, institutions, organizations, networks, and individuals located between family, the state and the market” (Anheier, 2005). Graduate education focusing on philanthropy and nonprofit administration helps prepare leaders and managers to effectively and efficiently engage in and contribute to civil society by addressing the issues important to citizens that may be insufficiently addressed by business or government. We might agree that some complex social problems that have existed for many years require the collaborative effort of all three “sectors.” We are seeing more evidence of such efforts through social entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships. Graduate education programs grapple with staying current on what is a constantly moving target, what current and future leaders and managers of these organizations require to effectively operate within their environment.

We need to remind ourselves, however, that nonprofit organizations are not just “gap fillers” or “service providers” as they often are characterized by government and the organizations themselves. They are the vehicles for citizen participation through artistic or religious expression, advocacy, and building community. The responsibility of these graduate programs is not to just keep pace with trends but to also ensure that students receive a holistic approach to their education. This means incorporating ethics across curriculum and not just in one course, embedding the concept of philanthropy from a historical and humanities foundation, and balancing the mix of a liberal and professional education so that graduates are well-rounded, inclusive, critical thinkers.

The MPNL program at GVSU represents an effort dedicated to philanthropic and nonprofit leadership, however the roles of government and business play an important part in curriculum and instruction because we continue to see the importance of the interaction of all types of organizations. All graduate programs in nonprofit and philanthropic studies, including our new MPNL, need to reflect, rethink and revise what we offer our students because we owe it to them and to our civil society.

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