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Fellow Spotlight: Alan Abramson

Fellow Spotlight

By: Alan Abramson

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Alan Abramson ('16): Director and Professor, Center on Nonprofits, Philanthropy, and Social Enterprise, Schar School of Public Policy and Government, George Mason University

What area of public policy interests you the most and why?

As a researcher, my major area of focus has been the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, especially the relationship between nonprofits and government. While many in the U.S. see the country’s nonprofits as comprising an independent sector, I continue to be impressed by the extensive interdependence of the nonprofit and government sectors. Most of my students are surprised to learn that, in the aggregate, nonprofits receive more of their funding from government than from all sources of philanthropy. Understanding nonprofits’ relationship to government is arguably as important as understanding their relationship to philanthropy.

In addition to nonprofits, I have a longstanding interest in “social enterprises,” double-bottom-line organizations that seek to both “do good” and “make money,” and which can come from the nonprofit, business, or even government sectors. Some argue, in fact, that hybrid, social enterprises now constitute a fourth sector of our society, alongside the government, nonprofit, and business sectors. My particular interest is in public policy toward social enterprise and how government can be appropriately supportive of these hybrid entities that can tap important, market-oriented resources to do good and complement government’s own, tax-based funding sources.

Do you have any works – books, articles, or otherwise – that you would like to spotlight? Can you briefly tell us about it?

I and others, including Shirley Sagawa, have written about the need for nonprofits to have better representation within government. So many interests now have a voice within the federal government – farmers have the Agriculture Department; labor has the Labor Department; business has the Commerce Department. In contrast, the nonprofit sector is regulated by the Internal Revenue Service, but there is not a similar agency in the federal government concerned with the overall health of this important sector of our society and which represents the nonprofit sector and speaks up for it in a positive way. One option is to establish a Small Business Administration-type agency for the nonprofit sector that would support, but not necessarily further regulate, the nonprofit sector.

With government’s important stake in the health of the nonprofit sector, a related need is for the government, in collaboration with other stakeholders, to produce better data on the state of the nonprofit sector. In a recent article, I describe the kind of data needed to assess the health of the nonprofit sector and the useful information in – and drawbacks of – the data sources that are now available.

Who has been a key mentor or source of inspiration for you?

There are several people who I count as sources of inspiration and mentors, including: Leon Sigal, an important undergraduate professor at Wesleyan University; David Mayhew, my dissertation adviser at Yale; Lester Salamon, my program director at the Urban Institute; Elizabeth Boris, who I worked with at the Aspen Institute; and Virginia Hodgkinson, who chaired my program’s Governing Council at the Aspen Institute. Working with Salamon, in particular, was critical in shaping my professional career. I worked with him first for a year at the National Academy of Public Administration on a wonderful project, “A Presidency for the 1980s,” that developed recommendations regarding the staffing of the presidency.

Along with the NAPA project, I worked early on with Salamon on developing the concept of “third-party,” or “shared” governance, the reality that responsibility for implementing government programs often engages networks of organizations from all levels of government – federal, state, and local – as well as the nonprofit and business sectors. This work attracted the interest of nonprofit and foundation leaders who wanted help in better understanding the complicated relationship of the nonprofit sector and government, and who, specifically, commissioned Salamon and me to study the impact on nonprofits and philanthropy of the Reagan administration’s federal budget cuts. This work in the early 1980s began both Salamon and me on very rewarding careers in nonprofit research.

What is your favorite class you have ever taken and why?

The couple of undergraduate classes I took at Wesleyan with Lee Sigal still stand out. I remember, in particular, some of the short writing assignments he gave us: “What is balanced in the balance of power?” “Why did Daniel Patrick Moynihan make the recommendations he did in the Moynihan report that he produced in the mid-1960s?” In Sigal’s classes, I was particularly taken with discussion of Graham Allison’s different models of decision making, including alternatives to rational approaches. Perhaps not surprisingly, I continue to be interested not only in explanations of behavior that emphasize rationality but also in those which highlight organizational routines, incentives, and culture; “garbage cans”; and similar not so rational factors.

What is your favorite hobby or activity that you enjoy doing in your free time?

While I enjoy my (too infrequent) trips to the gym, lately I have been consumed with completing the daily Spelling Bee, Wordle, and Mini-Crossword in the New York Times games app.

What is the best movie you have seen?

As a child of the 1960s, my favorite movies are The Graduate and Harold and Maude.

What was your dream job as a child?

I always wanted to be a college professor. I’m living that dream. My other dream “job” was to be a father, which, as a gay man, I wasn’t sure was ever going to happen. However, 22 years ago my husband and I adopted our son at his birth. So, I am also living the dream – and reality – of being a parent

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About Alan Abramson

Alan J. Abramson is a professor and the director of the Center on Nonprofits, Philanthropy, and Social Enterprise in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. In these positions, he teaches, conducts research, and works in the broad field of public administration, with a particular focus on issues related to the nonprofit sector and philanthropy.

For more than a decade, Abramson directed the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program, overseeing the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund and other initiatives that helped to build the nonprofit research field in the U.S., strengthen nonprofit and foundation leaders, and deepen the understanding of policymakers about nonprofit activities. Before joining the Aspen Institute, he was on the staff of the Urban Institute, where he conducted research on a variety of domestic public policy issues.

Abramson is the author and coauthor of numerous books and articles, and his work has twice won awards from the American Political Science Association. He has served on many national and local nonprofit boards and advisory committees, and has been named among the 50 most influential leaders in the U.S. nonprofit sector. In 2015-16, Abramson served as president of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), the nation’s leading association for nonprofit researchers. In 2016, he was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and in 2018-19 he served as the first Visiting Scholar at Independent Sector. In July 2021, he became coeditor-in-chief of the scholarly journal Nonprofit Policy Forum.

At Mason, Abramson has previously served as interim MPA director, and he is currently a member of the Faculty Senate and an elected faculty representative to the Board of Visitors Development Committee. Knowledgeable about a broad range of nonprofit issues, his major, current interests are: the infrastructure–or support system–for the nonprofit sector; nonprofit advocacy; public policy toward social enterprise; the health of the overall nonprofit sector; and shared governance, the engagement of all three sectors–nonprofit, government, and business–in addressing social problems.

Abramson received his PhD in political science from Yale University and his BA from Wesleyan University.

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