Members of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC) recently voted in favor of developing an accreditation process for the academic institutions in its membership, a decisive step in the organization’s ongoing work towards professionalizing the philanthropic sector.
Over the last several decades, academic institutions have started to introduce philanthropy coursework and degrees.
These programs, created to turn out certified philanthropic specialists, promote philanthropy as a profession, a sort of science of raising and distributing money that can be compiled as a set of information to be taught.
The concept of a prominent institution offering accreditation for these programs takes it a step further, suggesting that this body of knowledge ought to be absolutely standard, a program which either passes or fails the criteria set by that council.
The NACC’s accreditation would provide those considering entering or funding these academic programs with a sense of their validity, an assurance that they are not, as NACC co-chair Renee Irvin put it, “nonprofit in name only.”
Irvin’s co-chair Matthew Hale explained that a central requirement for accreditation would be an intentional connection of these universities’ coursework to the NACC’s curricular guidelines, as published in 2000.
Since its 1991 founding, NACC has gained a singular position of authority with relation to nonprofit university education programs, and its stamp or denial of accreditation would carry weight. This accreditation process will, in other words, not only narrow the realm of philanthropic degree-earning to programs approved by NACC, but would limit approved programs to those structured after the curriculum guidelines and program goals laid out by none other than NACC.
The problem with professionalizing philanthropy begins as soon as these educational programs are introduced, even without a standardizing accreditation process. The development of certified “philanthropists” promotes an understanding of charity as a trade that benefits from, and perhaps requires, a trained specialist.
Asserting the importance of credentialed training downplays the role of the citizen and the importance, even the legitimacy, of his capacity for involvement in his own community. It opts for professionals, instilled with a body of standard knowledge, over a community of civically engaged individuals, able to see the needs in their immediate surroundings.
This outlook influences not only the perspective of these “professionals” but of citizens themselves, who, best able to see the immediate needs around them, will either understand them as their responsibility to address, or as someone else’s responsibility and “expertise.”
By delegitimizing the role of “untrained” individuals, communities, and small associations for charitable work, these academic programs will arguably take a heavy toll on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship.
The program of accreditation that NACC is working towards in light of this decision will only magnify the negative implications of these academic programs. If this kind of credentialism becomes established, the definition of “legitimate” and “certified” philanthropy will be not only in the hands of the several institutions which offer these degrees, but overarchingly in the hands of one institution, NACC, and its vision of certified philanthropy, its methods and aims.
In a position paper released after NACC’s 2016 Accreditation Summit, a meeting that preceded this year’s decision, Hale and Irvin offered a hat-tip to concerns that “the rising culture of assessment is antithetical to the true values of the nonprofit sector.” They wrote that this criticism stems from “critical theory perspectives which call into question the bias inherent in the codification of knowledge in universal standards.”
In response, they blankly asserted the “unrivalled expertise” of NACC with regard to curriculum guidelines, and also acknowledged that these guidelines were not perfect or absolute, and would improve and evolve over the years.
That Hale and Irvin considered this an answer to the objections is telling. In response to worries about the codification and standardization of a philanthropic science, they only offer assurances of their qualifications and that these standards will be free to develop over time.
They offer no answer to those concerned about the process of standardization itself, or the possibility of one single institution with the “expertise” to see and respond to needs as various and particular as there are people and places.