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Human Connectivity.

Building bridges in the nonprofit sector

Foundation officers have long known that there's little challenge in leading almost any academic horse to water. And, it isn't all that hard to get them to drink -- as long as the drinks are paid for by grants earmarked to specific project directors.

Convincing an academic to work with folks from other institutions in response to a foundation invitation can be an altogether different story.

When the W.K. Kellogg Foundation invited a set of academic leaders in the field of nonprofit education to Battle Creek in 1996, reactions ranged from mild shock to outright disbelief when it was discovered that what was billed as a "consultation" was actually a tightly designed set of focus groups. During the sessions, "academics" and "practitioners" were assigned to separate groups and put through a variety of planned exercises.

Out of this process emerged an initiative titled "Building Bridges Between Practice and Knowledge in Nonprofit Management Education." Eventually under this initiative, higher education centers throughout the Americas were awarded 27 grants.

These grants came with strings attached. As Kellogg put it: "Nonprofit management practice and nonprofit management education need to be more interdependent. Academicians need to develop programs of study that are relevant to the management issues faced in the real world of practice, while practitioners need to participate in research and the institutionalization of best practices."

If a university received a Building Bridges grant, it was required to involve both academics and practitioners m the leadership structure of its program, and to develop genuine two-way partnerships between nonprofit practice and classroom instruction.

Moreover, the leadership teams were required to meet annually -- all 27 of them -- to share what psychologist Ron Lippitt once identified as their "prouds and sorries" in a "Learning Community Meeting." Reporting in considerable detail was expected -- all coordinated by the Centerpoint Institute, under contract to Kellogg as the project's facilitator.

Not surprisingly, the construction of the bridges did not always proceed without hitch. The practitioners involved in the various programs found that the leadership straw they drew within the projects usually seemed to be the shorter one, a recognition they shared at a specially convened "Practitioners Working Group Conference" held at the University of Pennsylvania in June.

During this conference, the academic leaders of the projects not only learned of the difficulties experienced by their practitioner partners but also heard directly from leaders of the West Philadelphia community that is the primary target for Penn's service.

A common theme emerged from this gathering: However valiantly the academic leader tried to assure an equal relationship, the fact remained that practitioners continued to feel that they had not been provided an equal footing on the project's various bridges.

The professor-director, of course, was usually tenured, and did not have to worry, as did his practitioner partners hired to advance the programs (14 of 19 U.S.-based directors were men), about employment prospects upon expiration of the grant. One practitioner-partner observed, "in this process, we are the 'temps'."

The simple fact that the grants were provided to, and the programs they established were sited at, universities (in all but two cases), meant that the academy was provided a considerable home-field advantage. As one practitioner put it, "Universities tend to be patronizing." And another observed, "We have gone from 'flattered' to 'used' in this process. A third described some of the tensions that had been involved in her being given a byline in a publication of one of the centers."

Frances Kunreuther, a distinguished community activist who found herself cast in the role of practitioner-partner in Harvard's project, observed that she had never viewed herself as a "practitioner" until she assumed her university position. "The term needs to be deconstructed," she observed, because "a good deal of power figures in it."

By the time the final Learning Community Meeting was held (in Washington, D.C., in October), the overall project had clearly chosen to give primary emphasis to the goal of advancing non-profit management education. Discussion topics focused on the sustainability of projects, advancing nonprofit management within the academy and searching for continuing collaboration among the project programs.

"Engaging the voice of practice" in programs remained a topic of consideration, but, as one project director noted, it had clearly become a secondary focus of the project.

Each program was asked to prepare a table-sized exhibit of its accomplishments, and these tables were visited by colleagues and press alike at a "Showcase," held on October 20 in the midst of the Learning Community Meeting. Longtime colleagues of this columnist, the project directors of the various efforts, held forth to one and all who passed their tables with considerable verve and enthusiasm.

Among the showcases at the tables were:

* A program that allows nonprofit leaders throughout New York State to "join a current meeting" electronically. This "AnyTimeAnyPlace" methodology, developed by the SUNY Albany project, allowed for brainstorming and prioritizing a long list of potential topic areas for subsequent consideration.

* Identifying the specific barriers that so often prevent nonprofit management educators and practitioners from working productively together (Indiana University). As Gwendolyn Perry, the practitioner partner in the Indiana program asked, "If we don't tell them what we want and need, how can they enrich our education?"

* Involving faculty members in developing courses that provide "Academically Based Community Service" (University of Pennsylvania). This remarkable program has attracted the participation of such world-class scholars as anthropologist Peggy Sanday and linguist William Labov.

* Developing sophisticated distance learning curricula that have already reached 6,000 participants in a program of certificate study in nonprofit management (The Learning Institute, a partnership of the Society for Nonprofit Organizations and the University of Wisconsin).

* Implementing a cost-effective Executive-Trustee Leadership Academy, which provides a six-month series of seminars and associated consultation services to leadership teams from St. Louis area nonprofits (the Nonprofit Services Consortium, a partnership between four universities and eight leading sector-service organizations in the greater St. Louis area).

There were other tables, too, and many of them beckoned the visitor with tales of similarly impressive accomplishments.

Kellogg's Robert Long, an indefatigable leader of academic horses, assured those who asked that the foundation would stay the course, despite the recent flatness of its cereal company stock. Much discussion centered on the importance of creating collaborative links among the participating programs, and extending those links even more broadly through the nonprofit world.

The overall success of the Building Bridges Initiative seems clear. It had not been an easy process, to be sure, and the place of practitioners might have been more securely engaged within it. But, on the whole, the face of nonprofit management education has been changed by this effort, and a wide range of programmatic advances have been conceived and developed throughout the Americas.

For NPT readers, this project means it is once again time to check in with the university-based program in your region: You're likely to find a new receptivity there to the interests and needs of your own organization. It is even possible that you will be invited to share a drink with an academic leader well along in an important learning process, one who recognizes the importance of the university's being of real help to you and the work of your organization.

Jon VanTil is professor of Urban Studies at the Camden, N.J., campus of Rutgers University and is the author of the books "Critical Issues in American Philanthropy" and "Mapping The Third Sector," and "Growing Civil Society: From Nonprofit Sector to Third Space."
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Author:Til, Jon Van
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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