This is part of a series of posts from colleagues and friends around the world reflecting on the life, work, and impact of late Center Director Lester M. Salamon. A collection of additional remembrances from colleagues, online tributes, and photos can be found here.
Thank you to Dennis Young and Kirsten Grønbjerg for sharing these reflections.
It’s hard to overstate the contributions that Lester Salamon made to the field of nonprofit sector studies. He was one of a small handful of scholars who literally established the field and perhaps the most impactful of all of them. He was both a theorist and an empiricist, and profoundly influential on both scores. On the theoretical side, he gave us the theory of third party government, explaining why nonprofits were partners with governments rather than just substitutes. And, along with Helmut Anheier, he articulated the social origins theory to help us understand why the character of the nonprofit sector varied among different countries around the world. But as much as his development of theory influenced generations of scholars and policymakers, it was his contribution to the data infrastructure on the nonprofit sector that was his towering achievement.
I once had the opportunity to introduce Les as keynote speaker to the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations annual conference, in the early 1990s. I explained that Les and his team had pioneered the measurement of the size and scope of the nonprofit sector in a number of states and metropolitan areas of the U.S. and that he was now ready to take on the world. The scope of his envisioned Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, was mind-blowing, inviting both skepticism and awe in terms of the tools that would be needed to collect comparable data over a wide range of countries, the teams of researchers that would have to be assembled country by country, and the funds that would have to be raised to support all of these efforts. Lester earned the reputation of consummate academic entrepreneur by pulling all that off in superb fashion.
My personal interactions with Les were mostly in connection with his book projects. With him, I wrote the chapter in successive editions of The State of Nonprofit America on commercialization, social ventures, and for-profit competition. Les was a demanding co-author and editor with a very high standard for excellence. Take a look at the contributors to that volume and you will find the field’s leading scholars. And I’m pretty sure that Les was just as demanding of every one of them as he was of me. In 2018, Les returned the favor to me, writing the Foreword to the Handbook of Research on Nonprofit Economics and Management which I co-edited with my colleague Bruce Seaman. Someone else might have approached this assignment as an honorific exercise, but Les took it very seriously, critiquing the whole book and questioning the views that its leading economist contributors had articulated. It was a challenging yet refreshing interaction, reminiscent of various opportunities that we had to debate the finer points of nonprofit economic theory in conferences over the years.
Aside from the books, I never had the opportunity to work directly with Les, although we explored possibilities from time to time. But I’m so grateful to have developed a personal and professional relationship with him, and to have written the letter that led to his ARNOVA career achievement award in 2003. He was so thoroughly deserving of that award back then, and his achievements and impact just continued to mount thereafter.
Lester was a paragon of excellence, vision and determination, who cared deeply about nonprofits as a field of study and as critical sector in our society. He also cared deeply about his colleagues and he was a leader among leaders. He will be intensely missed for his vision, his energy and his passion and determination.
Dennis R. Young
Emeritus Professor, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University
Emeritus Professor, Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University
Founding Editor-in-Chief, Nonprofit Policy Forum
Chair, Research Advisory Network, National Center on Nonprofit Enterprise
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on Les’ contributions to the field. I have already seen so many well-deserved tributes, emphasizing his many publications and substantive contributions to the field of nonprofit and philanthropic research. I won’t repeat those here, except to note that as the Chicago Field Associate for his first major project examining the impact of the Reagan budget cuts on the nonprofit sector, I had the opportunity to see the care with which he sought to develop solid research on the field. I had done previous work on the field—in fact it was because Les had seen an article I published on “Private Welfare in the Welfare State: Recent U.S. Patterns” (Social Service Review 56, March 1982) that he invited me to serve as the Chicago Field Associate. However, working with him on that project gave my own nonprofit research career a major boost, and I will forever be in his debt for making that connection. I know that the later Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project had a similar impact on researchers in the countries included in that project.
His work was truly pioneering, especially his insistence on using, finding, and/or if necessary, developing systematic data sources. I didn’t always agree with the definitions or parameters he used—or the underlying assumptions—but there is no doubt that he was instrumental in developing some truly important sources of data.
Most notable from my perspective was his work on getting the United Nations to include nonprofit economic activity in the System of National Accounts, the International Labor Organization to regularly measure volunteering, and his use of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage data to measure paid nonprofit employment. Indeed, we are using the basic methodology for the latter in our analysis of paid nonprofit employment in Indiana.
I also very much appreciate his systematic use of the IRS Business Master File, while recognizing how incomplete it was—and more recently his persistent efforts to get the IRS to include government contracts again on Form 990 (it was removed in the 2008 revision). I remember spending countless hours trying to keep my cats from rearranging the small address labels I had cut out from all types of directories of Chicago area nonprofits. I had placed them in alphabetical stacks on the floor to check against the BMF back in 1981 when I was the Chicago Field Associate for the Urban Institute project. The first personal computers were just going on the market at the time, so I had to do this manually. But I developed a sound respect for this type of careful data review and have sought to implement those principles ever since.
Kirsten A. Grønbjerg
Director, Indiana Nonprofits Project
Distinguished Professor, O’Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs
Indiana University Bloomington
Chelsea Newhouse is the Communications Manager for the Center for Civil Society Studies and manages the Center's Nonprofit Economic Data and Philanthropication thru Privatization Projects and the Nonprofit Works Interactive Database. Prior to joining the Center in 2008, she worked for the Johns Hopkins University Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics, the Baltimore Sun, and as a community organizer for Clean Water Action and the Democratic National Committee. She holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of Virginia. Chelsea can be reached at email@example.com.