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Mapping the nonprofit sector

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By Elizabeth Cernota Clark

As a 19 year-old foreign exchange student from Denmark studying in the U.S. in the mid 1960s, Kirsten Grřnbjerg began to see differences between democratic and Socialist public policy.

Questions about those differences guided her studies and helped her shape a career dedicated to sociological research and public policy involving the nonprofit sector.

In November, Grřnbjerg’s work in the field won her the 2005 Award for Distinguished Achievement and Leadership in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research from the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, or ARNOVA.

Grřnbjerg  is the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Bloomington and serves as project director for “Indiana Nonprofits: Scope and Community Dimensions,” a joint project of the Center and Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The award, presented in Washington, D.C., at ARNOVA’s annual conference, was a surprise, says Grřnbjerg, who had helped organize the association 15 years ago.

In presenting the award, Alan J. Abramson, director of the Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program at the Aspen Institute, cited Grřnbjerg’s outstanding contributions in both research and leadership.

Her pioneering work to refine and perfect basic data about nonprofits has helped to deepen understanding about the basic size and scope of the nonprofit sector, he said, and has demonstrated the limits of existing databases, and developed new approaches for overcoming these limitations.

Abramson also commended Grřnbjerg as one of the first to map the complex flows of funding to nonprofits from many sources, and her leadership in developing philanthropy as a field of study.

Her interest in the sector stems from an ad she heard in 1965 while listening to the radio with friends at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.

The ad was about the USO, or United Service Organizations, and said the organization received no government funding, she recalls, adding it seemed odd that a nonprofit would advertise that it received no government support.

“Denmark was a well-developed state in which government funding was available, and public support was available,” she said. “Clearly, things were more complicated.”

Kirsten Grřnbjerg

Job: Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy, The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University; professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Education: B.A., sociology, Pitzer College, Claremont, Calif.; M.A., sociology, University of Chicago; Ph.D., sociology, University of Chicago

Born: Sanderborg, Denmark, 1946

Family: Husband, Gerald Suttles; two cats, Pipsqueak (Pip) and Lilliput; father, age 96, living in Denmark

Hobbies: walking, cooking, reading mysteries

Favorite books: Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout

Inspiration: “My husband. He has been extremely supportive, and useful in helping me think through things and come to grips with the differences between the U.S. and Denmark that I was encountering.”

Her first summer in the U.S., in 1965, was an interesting time, she says.

“The Watts riots happened that summer … and a number of developments related to race issues and the Vietnam War,” she says.

That USO radio spot piqued her interest in the differences between democratic and Socialist public policy, and questions kept coming as she continued her research, first as a sociology major at Pitzer, and then as a master’s and doctoral candidate at The University of Chicago.

In addition to the work and achievements recognized by ARNOVA, Grřnbjerg also was on the leading edge of computer-based research strategies.

Technology has streamlined her work over the years, but it involved learning complex word-processing systems and computer-spreadsheet software and programs.

Information for her first book, “Mass Society and the Extension of Welfare, 1960-1970,” published in 1977, included data with variables on all 50 states in the U.S.

“It all had to be done by key-punch card,” she says, recalling the labor and time-intensive process.  “These days, that sort of data would be assembled in minutes instead of hours.”

Today, Grřnbjerg sees poverty and inequity as major challenges facing society and the nonprofit sector, she says.

“I am quite concerned about the growing inequality in the U.S. and what seems to be a remarkable waste of human capacity due to poverty,” she says.  “I think we are giving short shrift to a large number of people who have been forgotten or excluded in a number of ways.”

“That translates to a social concern,” she says. “Nonprofits are one way of addressing that concern. Government would be a very important part of that.”

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