Our field is more important than ever: Reflections on the annual conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA)

Tuesday 10 January 2017

by Alina Baluch, Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good

The 45th annual ARNOVA conference was held in Washington, DC from 17-19 November 2016. Less than a fortnight after one of the most divisive and damaging elections in recent US history, the conference was particularly timely in its theme: “Nonprofits, Philanthropy & Government: Policy & Partnerships in an Era of Change”. The irony was not lost upon me that we were convening a mere stone’s throw away from the US Capitol Building and to my surprise, the ivory building had not gone up in flames. Yet, there was a real sense of urgency throughout the conference for ARNOVA members to research increasingly important issues, such as the relationship of nonprofits to government and the role of philanthropy in public policy and responding to new social needs. This was especially palpable in Professor Rob Reich’s (Stanford University) keynote in which he debated foundations as a threat to democratic governance, while arguing that they function as an extra-governmental mechanism for experimentation and innovation in social policy. The importance of ARNOVA’s research was further underscored by this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Achievement and Leadership in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Award, Professor Tomasina Borkman (George Mason University), an influential scholar and founder within the academic community whose research on self-help organisations shaped the field of voluntary action for years to come. The sense of urgency was echoed in mini plenary sessions on ‘Updating the Research Agenda on Government-Nonprofit Relationships’ or ‘The Politics of “Big Philanthropy” Then and Now’.

This year’s conference theme sessions and those devoted to ‘Philanthropy, Fundraising and Giving’ had a stronger international reach than in the past and signaled a growing area of research on civil society and developing the nonprofit sector in the Middle East and on Muslim Community Philanthropy and Foundations. While declarations that the foundation field is in the midst of a second golden era still remain to be borne out by the evidence, what is certain is that the increasing number of sessions on foundations attests to the burgeoning interest in this field. Attending ARNOVA reminded me that there is still much to discover in the fields of philanthropy, nonprofits and civil society, areas that loom more important now than ever before.

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