September 2020 Faculty Legacy Spotlight
Associate Professor, George Mitchell
In this legacy spotlight we welcomed Associate Professor, George Mitchell to the Marxe School with a chat about his thoughts on nonprofits and NGOs, his then-upcoming book, and more.
What is it about nonprofit and non-governmental organization management that interests you?
If you think about what nonprofits and NGOs represent, it’s a truly remarkable thing. People in their communities, all over the world, voluntarily organize to improve the human condition. That will—to see the world as it could be, rather than to accept it as it is, that aspiration to create the world that we want to live in—is a beautiful expression of the human spirit.
There is an engraving in a building I used to pass by in graduate school displaying the oath of the Athenian city-state, and there is a similar passage by Emerson that I encountered much earlier in life, about transmitting to the future a world more conducive to human flourishing. Nonprofits and NGOs embody that resolution, and act upon its obligations. They preserve and advance the accomplishments of nature and humankind. We should all wish to take part in this enterprise.
But the voluntary sector faces many challenges to its effectiveness. The status quo does not yield easily: repressive governments pass laws to suffocate civil society, human and manmade disasters keep resetting the clock. Not all the challenges are quite so profound and relentless, however. Organizations experience internal difficulties as well—in leadership, governance, strategic management, financial management, program evaluation, collaboration, organizational change, and in a thousand other areas. These also constrain the sector’s effectiveness.
People generally don’t commit their lives to the betterment of humankind because of their budgeting skills; they are animated by that passion to make a difference. But all the passion in the world won’t amount to very much unless you have the skills to convert that passion into meaningful social change. The marriage of passion and skill is essential.
If we ever want to live in the world that the voluntary sector aspires to create, we need to address the difficulties the sector faces. We need to know what works and what doesn’t. We need to know how to design better institutions, better processes, and better systems. The obstacles are numerous and daunting, but they are assailable, and we need to approach our task with awareness and deliberateness.
Many of the constraints that hinder the ability of nonprofits and NGOs to achieve greater impact simply don’t need to be there. We should remove as many of those constraints as we can. The highest aspirations of the human spirit shouldn’t be confined by poorly designed management systems.
In realizing the potential of voluntary organizations, we realize humankind’s best and noblest virtues, and we bring ourselves closer to experiencing that bravely imagined world that might otherwise remain out of reach. I believe in the potential of the voluntary sector to bring that better world into the present day. That is what interests me about nonprofits and NGOs.
What attracted you to the Marxe School?
The Marxe School had been on my radar for quite a while. I was a professor at the Colin Powell School at City College for several years before joining Marxe, so I was very familiar with Baruch and knew many faculty here. The School is developing in ways that position it very well for the future. They’re investing in my field. They value the voluntary sector and are committed to strengthening it. That’s exciting for me. I’m grateful to have an opportunity to contribute.
Of course, it’s also great to be in New York City, which is an epicenter for the nonprofit and NGO community, and which offers a lot of opportunities for faculty and students. I’m also very pleased to continue to serve within CUNY. Many CUNY students have experience in, or with, the sector. They share their insights during class, and those currently working in the sector can immediately apply what they’re learning and share those experiences as well. The diversity among the students is also fantastic. Whatever we’re talking about in class, students will have unique perspectives on it. It enriches the learning experience for everyone, and really helps to prepare students to be successful in a globalized world. I certainly learn a lot.
What will you be teaching in your first academic year at the School?
I’ll be teaching courses in nonprofit and NGO management, which is my specialization. It’s a great opportunity for me to teach in my core areas, which is another benefit of being at a school like Marxe that has a certain critical mass and that values nonprofit and NGO education.
Can you tell us about any of your recent, current, or upcoming research?
I’m writing a book examining how NGO leaders are initiating organizational change processes to adapt their organizations for the future. It has been a long time coming, and my coauthors and I are now making the final push to finish a first draft of the manuscript. We’ve been researching the NGO sector and working with practitioners for more than a decade as part of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School, and the book reflects our accumulated learnings. We’re really excited to write this book for the NGO community and hope that practitioners and academics will find it useful and thought-provoking.
My other projects right now mainly deal with nonprofit theory and come on the heels of a succession of empirical contributions. It’s important to iterate between data and theory. My empirical research raised a lot of questions that caused me to rethink some of the basic premises about nonprofit management. I think there is a lot of conventional wisdom out there that is just wrong and really holding the sector back. And I think our conceptual understanding of the nonprofit organization as an institutional form needs to be updated.
Another significant thread of research is about monitoring, evaluation, and what I call ‘outcome accountability’ in the nonprofit and NGO sector. I’m an avid proponent of rigorous program evaluation. I think organizations have a moral obligation to know how their programs are affecting their intended beneficiaries, especially because the populations they serve are often very vulnerable. There are also much larger problems I see in the nonprofit accountability architecture and in the philanthropic ecosystem more broadly that I see as resulting from insufficient evidence about program impact. After all, if no one really knows whether a program works, then managers and donors cannot have much of a basis for making rational decisions about strategy and resource allocation. I think it’s one of the most important, if not the most important challenge facing the sector, and it’s a very complicated one that I expect will keep me busy for a very long time.