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What is The Future of The Nonprofit Sector in Higher Education?

I was recently at the annual meeting of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council, a membership association of nearly fifty centers in colleges and universities devoted to research, teaching, and outreach to the nonprofit sector. While predominantly North American, its membership is increasingly global.

At the meeting, I facilitated a lengthy discussion of themes for an important conference in 2011 on education about the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. What was fascinating about the conversation was how heated it became over the question of whether there really was value in the conference's focusing solely or even primarily on "the nonprofit sector."

The question of what defines the nonprofit sector, beyond the IRS tax code, has been debated for decades. More recently, issues of sectoral boundaries have gained more prominence as we witness increased blurring from cross-sectoral partnerships, hybrid organizations, the rise of L-c-3s, social entrepreneurship activities, and so forth.

But, in the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of centers at colleges and universities that have tried to stake out a clear place for the nonprofit sector in general and education in nonprofit studies more particularly. Today, nearly 200 such centers exist in the US alone as parts of schools of public affairs, social work or business. Getting that place at the table in higher education has not been easy despite rising student and community demand for nonprofit courses, certificates, consulting, and training. The very identity of these centers rests squarely with a strong belief in the boundedness of the nonprofit sector. Interestingly, the PNLC has never focused solely on the nonprofit sector, as its mission states: The Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center strives to enhance the leadership of nonprofits, philanthropy, and public sector organizations to work together--with the private sector--to advance the common good and serve the public interest. And, many of us at the PNLC have spoken about the need for students and practitioners to become "multi-lingual," meaning proficient in the use of concepts and frameworks from public policy, business, public and nonprofit management. Nevertheless, many inside and outside of HHH think of us as the "nonprofit" center.

There are many important aspects of the question concerning the rightful place of nonprofit sector studies in higher education. It remains difficult for junior faculty to achieve tenure based solely on work in nonprofit studies -- disciplinary focus and recognition are rewarded and the field of nonprofit studies is a multi-disciplinary field. Yet, to advance the field, new research and new researchers are needed. Many rightly fear that attention to nonprofit organizations wanes in business schools and even schools of public affairs if the sector is not given some degree of prominence through specialized courses. And, students and community leaders still demand curriculum, professional development and training targeted at nonprofit organizations.

The issues raised at the NACC meeting deserve more discussion. In many countries, nongovernmental or civil society organizations perform more public services and take on more public responsibilities than do governments. Are these organizations more public than private and with what consequences? Has social entrepreneurship, which can occur in any sector of the economy, eclipsed nonprofit management as a set of skills and behaviors demanded by students and practitioners? How should formal courses, professional development training, community engagement activities reflect our best thinking about these questions now and in the future? I welcome your thoughts.

Comments

I think that the future of non-profits is in social entrepreneurship which will help their sustainability.

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