The Beginning of CGAP by Thomasina Borkman

The CGAP Leadership Team asked Thomasina Borkman, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, to reflect on the early days of ARNOVA and CGAP

Borkman CGAP blog

Conferences of the Association of Voluntary Action Scholars (AVAS)  in the late 1970s were small informal affairs held in Universities where we could sleep in inexpensive student housing. We mostly knew each other.  It was a more hospitable and personal venue for me to try out my sociological papers than many larger sociological conferences.  Moreover, the interdisciplinary atmosphere fascinated me.  By 1990 I had attended the Association’s conferences and presented papers for years and been active on committees,  I was elected President at a critical time when it was crucial that AVAS expand from a sleepy fold-up organization to a vibrant year round membership association. As I presided over the transformation I realized sadly that I would personally not like the new larger glitzier nonprofit replacement organization. The names of the Association and the journal were also changed to ARNOVA and NVSQ. Irony: to successfully orchestrate a creature for whom you are lukewarm!

Centers of nonprofit management and research were increasing during this period; an important decision was made to combine the yearly meetings of the nonprofit management centers with the research conference of ARNOVA. The organizational predictions of myself and other stalwart AVAS fans that the concerns of the nonprofit management programs would overwhelm and minimize the substantive and theoretical issues of the disciplines of sociology, political science, social work, history and psychology seemed to be occurring.  During ARNOVA conferences David Horton Smith, Jon Van Til, Carl Milofsky, and myself among others, would commiserate about the lack of a venue for community and grassroots research in the sector.  CGAP was our answer which I think was the second special section following the Teaching Section.

CGAP has had a variable career as a special section similar to a community: Dedicated members of the section have edited peer reviewed papers in a special issue of NVSQ or the Handbook of Community Movements and Local Organizations (Edited by Ram A. Cnaan & Carl Milofsky, Springer 2007).  Other years conflict over leadership deterred achievement.  Some years we have had nothing distinctive at the annual conference or otherwise. Other years we have local community or grassroots organizations share their wares in a Pre-conference Workshop as is happening this year with the one I am organizing.  This year we will have three dynamite examples of the next generation of self-help/mutual aid:  creating a self-governing recovery community of prisoners in a jail pod; Recovery International is cognitive therapy run by and for “lay” people with mental health issues, or prisoners in jail or high school students; and SHARE! is a self-help center with 60 self-help support group meetings a week combining them with a clearinghouse, collaborative housing, and a volunteer to job program into a recovery community.

2 thoughts on “The Beginning of CGAP by Thomasina Borkman

  1. I want to add to Thomasina’s history. In the early 1990s a group of us involved with editing NVSQ were very close and also frustrated by the things Thomasina mentioned. As ARNOVA grew, we thought there should be sub-groups or interest groups that could be a basis for discussion and that could welcome new members. We also felt frustration about what we thought of as “ARNOVA Central”. This partly involved those elements of ARNOVA most interested in what David Horton Smith called “paid-staff nonprofits”, contrasted with his “dark matter” associations. The concern also reflected a growing frustration with things ARNOVA had to do to manage its growing size and to develop a business model that would work to establish the association as a solvent operation. We should appreciate that today this business model is in place, ARNOVA is solvent, and that success is due in significant measure to those who are most interested in paid-staff nonprofits.

    Frustration with “ARNOVA-Central” continues today, although I’m afraid “them is us”. Be that as it may, when we first organized CGAP and voiced our frustrations it struck a resonant chord (as it does today) and for our first meetings we had turnouts of around 200 people who wanted to create alternatives and so we created the section.

    The driving force behind formalizing CGAP, by the way, was David Horton Smith who made up the name (none of us know what the acronym means—I suppose he could tell us!). David was energetic about creating by-laws and then reminding us that we had to adhere to the complicated procedures he had set up about selecting a leadership group and a president.

    Ram Cnaan and I created the HANDBOOK OF COMMUNITY MOVEMENTS AND LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS (Springer 2008) with the help of many senior section members. The book is meant to define our field and the chapters were written both to introduce theoretical subfields and to be readable so that they could be used in class. The book is now out in paperback so please look at it and use it!

    We did some talking in those initial groups about what community-oriented ARNOVAns needed and what our projects should be as a section. The first complaint was that we lacked available and coherent theoretical materials that could be used as the foundations for classes we wanted to teach or as background for new participants in this section.

    One reason CGAP was successful is that in the mid-1990s the ARNOVA conference started on Thursday afternoons. We saw an opportunity to capitalize on unused time slots Wednesday evening and Thursday morning and did so. One of the things we did each year is that we brought in organizers from the local community to tell us what organizing trends and projects were happening in Miami or Denver or DC. We also had some special presentations like a session we did on community organizations in Northern Ireland. We seem to have stopped running these special topics events but they were a big draw for the section.

    One special benefit of using the Wednesday evening and Thursday morning sessions is that we could target foreign visitors to ARNOVA. Many of them arrive a day early to manage travel inconveniences but then they sat around for a day before the conference would begin. We aimed to provide programs for them and this remains a good idea.

    One thing I came to understand is that the community and grassroots focus is a dominant interest for international members of ARNOVA. This is not so true for U.S. members. Not only are these people interested in community mobilization but they also were interested in a critical political perspective and radical uses of local organizations. ARNOVA’s political conservatism is one reason so many of those from outside the U.S. came to see ARNOVA as having a tiresome U.S. bias in the framework and presentations it offers. This continues to be a problem with ARNOVA and a niche CGAP could develop.

    While CGAP was very successful in its early years the section suffered when ARNOVA began starting the conference on Thursday morning and as other sections were created, competing successfully for the Wednesday evening slots. CGAP got smaller and those of us in the leadership group came to feel we had lost our niche and our purpose.

    Writing this blog entry has made me realize that perhaps we have lost our early sense of who our constituencies are. First, I think we ought to engage international participants in ARNOVA and perhaps develop a focus on international grassroots NGOs which is a growing area of interest for members. Second, we ought to return to having sessions that feature local organizers telling about projects in the host communities where we meet. Third, we ought to champion an activist, critical approach to nonprofits and work to develop a more focused perspective on what such an activist approach might mean.

  2. Thomasina and Carl, thank you so much for your comments. It is very helpful to get a sense of the history of the section and I think you are right, Carl, we need to get a renewed sense of the role of the sections in ARNOVA and the niche for CGAP. I get a bit disillusioned at times wondering what the point of the sections is any longer and how we can engage people more in the section. But, I also feel that CGAP can create and maintain an important space for the areas you note. The question for me is how do we get people behind this and make it happen? It’s hard to get people together during the conference these days and everyone is busy.

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