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Center seeks collaboration to develop new leaders

September 24, 2008 By Jenny Price

The number of nonprofit organizations in the United States has tripled during the last 20 years, and industry estimates show retirements will leave the nonprofit sector with 640,000 vacant jobs in senior management.

Wisconsin is home to 33,000 nonprofit organizations, including more than 900 in Dane County alone, according to the Wisconsin Nonprofits Association.

Despite the opportunities that presents, until recently there was no school or department on the UW–Madison campus focused specifically on the nonprofit sector. There were some courses across campus, but no core curriculum for students who wanted to pursue a career in the growing nonprofit sector after graduation.

The new Center for Nonprofits, launched in May, is stepping in to fill that gap with plans for degree programs, research, and continuing education and outreach efforts to strengthen the nonprofit sector and its leadership. The center, housed in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE), is now seeking faculty, staff and student affiliates from across campus.

Photo of Yasiri


“We have a record number of nonprofit executives that are going to be leaving their service, but no bench strength to take over,” says Jeanan Yasiri, the center’s director. “It’s a different world than when many of these nonprofits were being established a few decades ago.”

There are 1.4 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, employing more than 11 million people. Nonprofits support families and communities by filling the gaps in services government can’t or won’t provide in education, health care and social services. Wisconsin is home to 33,000 nonprofits, reaching from Ashland to Janesville and La Crosse to Milwaukee, and there are more than 900 in Dane County alone, according to the Wisconsin Nonprofits Association.

“We, as a sector, are larger than people really understand,” says JoAnn Stormer, the association’s interim director and the executive director for the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program.

With a planning grant from the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation, SoHE officials convened a task force of faculty, staff, students and community leaders two years ago to investigate what other programs were available around the country and assess campus interest in studying the nonprofit sector. The foundation also provided bridge funding to launch the UW–Madison center.

There are more than 40 academic centers in the United States related to nonprofits, but Yasiri says there is a dearth of doctoral programs whose primary focus is nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations. Indiana University has a highly regarded Ph.D. program, but it is more focused on philanthropy. What the task force did find was intense interest among nonprofits in the community for educational and research opportunities connected to the field.

“I think that it is critical to start representing this sector as a viable career choice that people seek out as opposed to fall into,” says Barbara Snell, CEO for Access Community Health Centers, who serves as an adviser to the UW–Madison center. Access Community Health Centers provides affordable and comprehensive primary medical and dental care in Madison.

Snell says many times nonprofits flounder when the founder of the organization retires or when well-intended, smart, people in charge have clinical skills but lack the expertise to manage business operations day to day.

“Successful leaders — not only in our community but nationwide — have oftentimes been those that have kind of had to cobble together the type of training and experience that you need to run an organization,” says Snell, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in management.

The school is also launching one of the first student collegiate chapters in the nation of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, aimed at students interested in pursuing job opportunities in the nonprofit world.

“More and more, I think people of my age are starting to see this as a viable option for their careers … not just viewing nonprofits as, ‘Well, I volunteer down at the soup kitchen twice a month,’” says Joe Wong, a senior English major who is a member of the student group’s steering committee.

Photo of Zeldin


The center is awaiting approval of a new School of Human Ecology undergraduate major in community and nonprofit leadership, but rather than start its own master’s program from scratch, faculty director Shepherd Zeldin says the center is investigating a collaboration with the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at UW-Milwaukee. The institute offers both a master’s degree and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management and leadership.

UW–Madison’s center also intends to develop programming for professionals looking to transition into the nonprofit sector, and those already in the field wanting to strengthen their skills, such as a summer boot camp to help build the needed managerial skills to move into and help grow the sector.

While the purpose of the master’s and outreach programs would be to prepare graduates to go right into the field, the interdisciplinary Ph.D., which Zeldin estimates is a couple years away from getting off the ground, would be more theoretical and focus on research of the nonprofit sector, including foundations.

“We want to train graduate students to be both good scholars and good leaders for the nonprofit sector,” Zeldin says. “For me, graduate studies of the nonprofit sector appeal to students, faculty and staff because it forces us to integrate our disciplines, motivates us to support community organizations in sustainable ways, and allows us to be innovative and collaborative in terms of the scholarship that we do.”

The program hopes to attract students like Jessica Collura, who is earning a master’s degree in human development and family studies and is helping assess student interest in programs. As a Miami University undergraduate, she worked in crisis centers and before enrolling at UW–Madison, she was a Teach for America Corps member in Camden, N.J.

“I know that I want to be involved in the nonprofit sector, whether it’s researching, teaching about it, or actually working in it,” Collura says.

The center is now reaching out across disciplines, schools and colleges to attract interested faculty, staff and students as affiliates and to build consensus about what the Ph.D. program should include. Affiliates will have the opportunity to publish through the center and apply for research funding grants when they become available in the future.

Yasiri says the center has already been approached by a number of organizations that work with nonprofits that are interested in gaining more information about the sector, including: human resource issues, financial issues, leadership transitions and issues associated with diversity.

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