The membership of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC) voted at its annual meeting on July 31st to pursue the development of an accreditation process for its institutional members, all of whom provide graduate and/or undergraduate education with a focus on the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Why is this significant? As an academic discipline, the field of nonprofit studies only started to emerge about 35 years ago. This is in stark contrast to such established disciplines as the classic fields of liberal arts or sciences, which date back to our earliest universities. NACC’s history of establishing published curricular guidelines, and now a move toward formal accreditation, is an important step in the ongoing maturing and professionalization of the sector.
This also signals the latest attempt of the sector to define itself. While we have seen advances in other formal associations related to nonprofits and philanthropy (Independent Sector’s “Panel on the Nonprofit Sector,” or the National Council of Nonprofits, which boasts a network in over 40 states), higher education in this area has been a little more challenging to organize.
For starters, departments that offer coursework in nonprofit and philanthropic studies often don’t have a singular academic “home,” Programs are either extremely interdisciplinary, spanning several different departments, or they may exist as sub-fields within a school of public administration or even business management. Where these programs should “live” remains a topic of much debate—and perhaps this diversity is actually a positive thing—but that is not slowing down NACC from developing a process for its members to demonstrate their legitimacy as academic providers of truly unique sets of programs.
In this article, NPQ interviews the two co-chairs of the NACC Task Force on Accreditation: current NACC president Matthew Hale of Seton Hall University, and NACC president-elect Renee Irvin of the University of Oregon. Many NPQ readers have likely viewed the task force’s position paper on accreditation, a product of NACC’s 2016 Accreditation Summit, and which was presented at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) annual conference later that year. The position paper lays out the background and timelines for this process.
Matthew Hale is an Associate Professor and MPA Program Chair for the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Seton Hall University. His research focuses on how the media covers the public and nonprofit sectors.
Renee Irvin is an Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Nonprofit Management Program in the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management at the University of Oregon. Her specialties lie in the economics of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, including regulatory oversight of nonprofits, endowment funding, comparative nonprofit/for-profit outcomes, philanthropy, and nonprofit financial management.
A Conversation with Matthew and Renee
Why NACC? Why now?
Matthew Hale: NACC has long been a leader in helping the Nonprofit and Philanthropy field grow, so having NACC play a significant role in any accreditation process is a natural and kind of obvious fit. For a number of years, we have heard from program after program about how helpful the NACC Curricular Guidelines and Indicators of Quality have been for new programs just starting out. So again, it made sense for NACC to build an accreditation process off those documents. We actually started discussing accreditation over two years ago, but wanted to take it slow and try to build consensus about what nonprofit/philanthropy accreditation might look like.
Renee Irvin: NACC has long served in a guiding role for developing nonprofit programs (research, community outreach, and especially curriculum) in our field, so the originating role for accreditation comes naturally.
Despite the guidance, we are seeing programs develop that appear to be nonprofit in name only—with “and Nonprofit” in the degree title (or something similar), but with very little or no nonprofit or philanthropy content in the actual degree. In an effort to attract students, colleges and universities are claiming to have robust nonprofit curricula. An accreditation system would do several things:
- serve as a stamp of quality for those programs that gain accreditation,
- provide clear goals for programs that are in the developing stage, and
- shed light on programs that may be over-reaching in their claims to be offering nonprofit and philanthropy degree programs.
Just as other fields developed and eventually launched accreditation for their fields (architecture, social work, business, public administration/policy, and so on), we are ready to push each other to promote quality in nonprofit teaching, research, and community engagement by using the leverage of an accreditation system.
Founded in 1991, NACC has established itself as the voice of nonprofit education at the university level. How do you assess NACC’s capacity to take on the endeavor of building an accreditation program, financially and administratively?
Matthew Hale: I think NACC is in a great position to lead this endeavor for two reasons. First, a guiding principle in our development process was to make sure NACC didn’t bite off more than we could chew. We constantly asked ourselves if we were overreaching NACC’s capacity to deliver. So we built in capacity to the model. Second, NACC members are some of the hardest-working and most entrepreneurial people in all of academia. So we have lots of really talented people committed to making it work.
Renee Irvin: It is certainly daunting to consider the logistics of launching and running a viable accreditation system. After considerable study, NACC members decided on a staged approach, with Stage 1 being a pilot program lasting for two cycles of accreditation. As our business plan describes, we designed an administrative structure (staffing, duties, etc.) and an accompanying financial plan. In other words, we are launching a modest accreditation system with no site visit. This modest system should be within our financial and administrative capacity, much as a would-be marathoner starts (if they are sensible!) with training to run a 5K first, then 10K, etc. Financially, according to our modeling, accreditation will be at best self-sustaining, and will not generate profit.
In a practical sense, how would the work of accreditation build on the curricular guidelines that NACC has published (and continued to revise) since the early 2000s?
Matthew Hale: The curricular guidelines are actually at the very core of this accreditation process. A central requirement of the NACC accreditation process is that we are asking programs to link their curriculum to the NACC curricular guidelines. We don’t expect every program to be able to link to all 16 of the guidelines, but the goal is for that program to show us that what they are teaching in the classroom is consistent with the NACC curricular guidelines.
Renee Irvin: I’ll defer to Matt on this, as he is more involved in planning the accreditation questions.
How is setting up a new accreditation system preferable to creating options under existing accreditation programs in related fields that often offer nonprofit programs, specifically NASPAA (Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration) or the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)?
Matthew Hale: One of the key reasons NACC has moved toward accreditation is that stand-alone nonprofit and philanthropy programs don’t have their own accrediting body and don’t fit always in NASPAA or AACSB. We would very much love to partner with NASPAA and or AACSB in the future, but right now “nonprofit and philanthropy first” programs need their own home and we hope that will be NACC.
Renee Irvin: First, many prominent nonprofit/philanthropy degree programs are not affiliated with traditionally accredited programs (business, social work, public admin/policy). It doesn’t make sense for a program that is designed and executed for the education of nonprofit professionals to revamp its curriculum and outcomes measurement to satisfy an accreditation system that is designed for programs training business or government sector professionals.
Second, the existing accreditation systems are not set up to understand nor to review nonprofit-first programs. For example, site visitors and reviewers are not likely to have any nonprofit/philanthropy expertise.
Third, what is considered “standard” curriculum for existing accredited degree programs might be irrelevant in the nonprofit/philanthropy context (and vice versa).
Some of your own task force committee members refer to the first phase of planned nonprofit accreditation as being more like a “certification”—a checklist of demonstrated components perhaps, more than an assessment of the quality of a program. How do you respond to that concern?
Matthew Hale: In my opinion, a quality program is one that has a quality curriculum and isn’t afraid to demonstrate that to the outside world. A quality program is one that has thought hard about its mission and has the basic resources and capacity to carry that out. A quality program is able to articulate how they engage their stakeholders in the process of education. A quality program can point to some aspects of their program that are special and that distinguish them from others. I think the NACC accreditation process can and will do all of those things, so I feel confident we will be able to identify quality programs.
Renee Irvin: Given that there is a growing number of “in name only” programs that purport to provide training specifically for the nonprofit sector (yet don’t), the “certification” (input-focused) aspect of NACC’s accreditation system should not be dismissed as trivial. We are examining coursework closely, as well as the quality of the professors teaching the coursework, which means that we are looking at some of the most crucial inputs in the quality production process.
The goal, as we move toward Stage 2 (after the two pilot years) is to move toward an outcomes-based accreditation system. Universities wanting a solely outcomes-focused accreditation review are welcome to wait until NACC develops this further.
What do you think is the path to having NACC accreditation recognized by the Council of Higher Education (CHEA), and is this needed for true legitimacy in the academic arena?
Matthew Hale: We have always said that one day we would love to have NACC accreditation recognized by CHEA. However, our ultimate goal is to improve the field of nonprofit and philanthropy education. There are ways that affiliating with CHEA might help us with that. However, I am hopeful that we never lose site of the field-improving goal. The NACC accreditation process should be built and maintained for the nonprofit and philanthropy education field first, and the other affiliations and associations second. Again, I hope that we can find ways to work with CHEA, with NASPAA, with AASCB and others in the accreditation space, but only after we have established the centrality of nonprofits and philanthropy to our endeavors.
Renee Irvin: Recognition by CHEA is a key goal; it’s important to signal to all universities offering nonprofit/philanthropy degree programs that our accreditation process is fair, clear, and outcomes-focused. As with other accreditation systems now recognized by CHEA, it will take years of hard work to move toward that goal.
Are there any downsides to creating an accreditation process? Will there be “winners and losers”?
Matthew Hale: Sure, there are always downsides and risks to any new enterprise. NACC could hold an accreditation party and have nobody show up. I don’t see that happening, but it is a risk. The real potential “loser” in this are what we have jokingly called “Uncle Fred’s School of Nonprofits,” which are kind of fly-by-night operations that pretend to prepare people for careers in the nonprofit/philanthropy sector. Our hope is that these types of programs will be the big loser in this effort.
Renee Irvin: An accredited university with a well-developed nonprofit/philanthropy program will “win” if its accredited status results in more enrolled students. But more generally, the entire population of university nonprofit programs benefits from self-policing quality. What happens if we don’t police quality? Poor quality programs or in-name-only nonprofit programs risk damaging the reputation of all degree programs.
Now that the membership has voted to proceed, what are the next steps in the process and what does the timeline look like?
Matthew Hale: We will be spending the rest of the summer and into the fall working on the launch process. We have a fairly well-developed draft template for the online accreditation mechanism on our web site and will be refining and finalizing that. We will need to hire a small, basically part-time staff that will get the process up and running. We have outlined the steps more specifically in our business plan, which is also available on the NACC web site.
Renee Irvin: The timeline is shown in the business plan. An important next step is to introduce this to university faculty attending the NACC meeting and Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) annual conference in November 2017.
What do you hope will be this development will achieve?
Matthew Hale: Our vision and goal is actually pretty simple and direct. NACC is hoping that our accreditation process will strengthen and build the nonprofit/philanthropy field by improving how the field learns. Everything else is kind of commentary.
Renee Irvin: NACC will continue to search for answers to this question. For me, the most compelling goals are simply those surrounding what our graduates can accomplish in their future careers. Accreditation is one step toward ensuring that our graduates can move mountains in their lifetime.