This blog is the final in a series of four that not only reminds us what things looked like in 1992, but also reveals how the practices of giving, the makeup and number of institutions, and the intensity and breadth of research and teaching about philanthropy have all expanded and changed in dramatic ways. For instance, megadonors have become much more mega, the lines between the sectors have blurred more than anyone expected, and most institutions for research about this field — and most university degree programs — have been established in the past three decades. Still, many other aspects of the field and its institutions have endured — and not always for the better.
Let’s explore what a difference 30 years can make in philanthropy.
At the time the Johnson Center was created, the academic field of philanthropic studies or nonprofit management (or other similar labels) was still in the relatively early stages of becoming a field. The Filer Commission in the 1970s had helped solidify the concept of a nonprofit sector and spawned the first wave of research and data on that sector. A small but active group of scholars had been organizing nascent scholarly associations and journals at that time also, and those were growing throughout the ’80s.
Independent Sector and a few national funders and other organizations had been intentionally working to establish the study and teaching of philanthropy and nonprofits as a field, in part because there was increasing demand for both more data and more trained nonprofit professionals as the sector grew and professionalized.
But again, the field was just getting ramped up. In 1992, by one estimate (from colleagues at Seton Hall University) there were 32 universities offering a graduate degree or concentration in nonprofit management (or related subjects), up from just 17 in 1990. This number rose to 76 in 1997, and 97 by 2000. The latest estimates — which are almost surely undercounting the total — show 401 colleges and universities with courses in nonprofits and philanthropy subjects, and 274 with graduate degrees. Undergraduate courses and degrees have been steadily increasing as well, including a wave of experiential philanthropy courses in recent years.
In addition, while the definition of an “academic center” is by no means widely agreed upon, by any definition we can confidently say there are far more centers now than in 1992. Independent Sector counted 24 such centers in 1991. That same year a membership association of centers — the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC) — was formed. NACC currently has 54 members, but there are likely others out there who are not formal members. In short, the field of philanthropy and nonprofit studies has clearly matured in the past 30 years, and we now have considerably more and better data and research, and courses and degrees, than we did then. However, the picture is not entirely rosy.
Despite the growth in degrees, courses, and centers in our field, not all progress was upward and positive. In fact, several of the biggest centers that dominated the academic landscape back in 1992 have closed at some point in the intervening decades — or have been significantly reduced or restructured.
What was considered by many to be the first major center, the Program on Nonprofit Organizations founded at Yale in 1978, went from a thriving and fully staffed entity in its first 20+ years to a program struggling to find an institutional home. It is now a small program operated by Yale’s School of Management.
The Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco, which was established in 1983 and created the nation’s first master’s degree in nonprofits, closed in 2009.
The Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western, started in 1984 and publisher of a core journal in the field, closed in 2012.
Boston College’s Center for Wealth and Philanthropy, which had been producing seminal research on giving since 1970, closed in 2015 with the retirement of its two principal scholars.
“The reasons for the decline or demise of these major centers are varied[.] … But they are a reminder of how difficult it is for even prominent centers to stay afloat, despite the clear need and demand for research and teaching in our field.”
The reasons for the decline or demise of these major centers are varied (e.g., the departure of a central leading figure, loss of major funding, or decline of internal institutional support). But they are a reminder of how difficult it is for even prominent centers to stay afloat, despite the clear need and demand for research and teaching in our field.
When the W.K. Kellogg Foundation made the initial grant to start what would become the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University in 1992 (matched by the university’s own investment in the project), it did so as part of a growing push to increase funding for research and teaching about philanthropy and nonprofits.
Other major foundations, such as the Lilly Endowment, C.S. Mott Foundation, and a then-anonymous funder known as “Atlantic Philanthropies” (later revealed to be the foundation of reclusive and frugal businessman Chuck Feeney), seeded many new programs at universities, as well as prolific research and data projects at Independent Sector, Foundation Center, and the Urban Institute (which created a National Center for Charitable Statistics in 1982).
Kellogg’s Building Bridges initiative funneled millions to support nonprofit academic centers and programs from 1997–2002. In 1991, a group of these funders also started the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund, managed by the Aspen Institute, which supported research in the field for the next 20 years (including the dissertation of your humble narrator). These funders had grand ambitions for what this major push for funding research, data, and teaching would yield. (They even began to meet and refer to themselves informally as “The Infrastructure Funders.”)
In their most wide-eyed moments, these colleagues hoped that in the future — 2022, say — we would have deep and broad data on all aspects of giving and the nonprofit sector, and that data would be widely available. They envisioned a field of study that was institutionalized into the core fabric of universities across the country, and academic degrees that were as respected, standardized, and popular as the M.B.A.
In many ways, these hopes have been fulfilled. Our base of scholarship about philanthropy, giving behavior, the nonprofit sector, and more is way beyond what it was in 1992. We’ve seen above how many more degrees and centers there are today.
Yet the fullest ambitions of those who looked to build the field in 1992 have not yet been achieved. Degree programs are still marginalized or precarious in many universities, and standardization is still evolving (NACC recently launched the first accreditation program). There are numerous aspects of giving behavior and nonprofit organization dynamics that have received scant research attention.
“[O]ur data about the sector, while much more extensive now, is still not on par with our data about other sectors.”
Moreover, our data about the sector, while much more extensive now, is still not on par with our data about other sectors. For example, for many years the wealth of nonprofit data collected by the Internal Revenue Service, including data from their required 990 tax forms, was largely inaccessible to both the public and researchers. A landmark report in 2013, alongside advocacy from many of our field’s research leaders, led to a series of legal and policy changes, including federal legislation in 2019 requiring the public release of the raw 990 data in a publicly available, no-cost, and machine-readable format.
Yet despite this, we still do not have basic information about the nonprofit sector such as total employment, payroll, share of revenue from government grants and contracts, or the number of nonprofit ‘births’ and ‘deaths’ — at least not on any regularly updated schedule nor widely accessible platform. Meanwhile, state and federal government reports with this sort of information about other economic sectors — e.g., agriculture, auto manufacturing, education — are available on monthly, quarterly, and annual schedules.
In contrast, the nonprofit sector relies on ad hoc reports from researchers, foundations, PSOs, and commercial providers — with much of the data moved behind a paywall as the providers of that data struggle to make their own business models work. Clearly, there is much more work to do.
It should be clear from this review that the nonprofit sector and the practice of philanthropy have become considerably larger and dramatically more complex in the past 30 years. It should also be clear that the study and teaching of those subjects have also grown and diversified.
But overall, the rate and magnitude of change in philanthropy have outpaced our study and teaching of it, despite the fervent efforts of places like the Johnson Center. And there are no signs that the pace of growth nor the extent of complexity will slow in the next 30 years — especially as sectors blur even more and new experiments continue. The practice of philanthropy will continue to throw out new twists and challenges for the study of philanthropy. We will continue to need well-trained and credentialed professionals to work in this ever-more-complicated field.
We have so much more work to do.