This is the first in a planned 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 Ben Gidron and Edith Archambault for sharing these reflections.
It is with deep feelings of sorrow and sadness that I write this memorial.
Lester was THE pioneer academic leader in the field of international nonprofit and civil society research.
At the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lifting of the iron curtain on the one hand and the changes in the structure of welfare states on the other, highlighted the roles of nonprofit and civil society organizations in society. Lester was possibly the first to recognize the need for data on this unknown sector of organizations, initially in the U.S. and later in rest of the world.
Lester devised a grand and most ambitious project, later nicknamed “the Hopkins Project,” of mapping and measuring that sector globally. He developed the conceptual tools, recruited the researchers from many countries, raised the funds to enable the national studies and the international comparisons, coordinated it all and wrote (with others) the many books and articles based on these studies, detailing the findings and building theories around them.
The results of that giant project and its many ripple effects were translated into policies towards the third sector in many countries and were adopted by the UN as part of the national accounting system. In addition to engaging in research and publications, he (with others) initiated and hosted at Johns Hopkins University several institutions around the newly-discovered concept of the third/nonprofit sector, which enhanced its acceptance in the academic community and beyond. These included the International Society for Third- Sector Research (ISTR), an inter-disciplinary community of researchers, as well as the International Fellows in Philanthropy, which brought to Johns Hopkins University international young researchers and practitioners in the field of NPO/civil society to study together for several months. These developments brought about the establishment of a large number of research centers and training programs in academic institutions around the world; hundreds, possibly thousands of academics—including me—owe Lester their careers.
I could write much more about Lester’s great academic achievements for which history will remember him, but I want to add a story about Lester the friend. At the end of the Mapping the Nonprofit Sector in Israel project that I directed, we planned an evening conference at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, during which our findings would be presented for the first time, and I invited Lester to present the larger international context. He was hesitant to commit himself as he was scheduled to be in Japan at the same time, but he asked for the program and the location and said he will let me know a few days before the event.
As I heard nothing from him before the conference, I assumed he would not come. At the assigned date and hour—still with no sign of Lester—I opened the conference with an apology that unfortunately, we will not be able to include its international component promised, as our guest was unable to make it. About half an hour into the conference, a staff member of the Van Leer Institute approached me and said there is someone in the lobby that is urgently looking for me. I went out (someone else was at the podium…) and here was Lester! He said he found a crazy connection on a very long flight from Tokyo to Tel Aviv via Bangkok and Mumbai, and instead of going directly back home to the U.S. after two weeks on the road, he took the much longer route. He said he wanted to honor his promise to be part of the meeting, knowing how important it was for me! He told me he just landed in Tel Aviv and made his way straight to the Van Leer Institute by taxi. He looked clearly exhausted. Despite these adverse conditions, once on the stage he was at his best. His presentation was superb; it made a great impression on participants, and gave our research a very big boost.
Lester was a major part in my professional life and I will miss him very much.
August 24, 2021
Lester was also a major part of my professional life, but of my personal life as well because he opened me to consider nonprofit sector in its global dimension and not as a specific sector in France. Early in my career, married and mother, I had visited only some European countries when Lester opened my mind to Asia, America, and Africa in many meetings of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Project (JHCNP). Through participation on successive international teams on diverse projects, he helped me to learn much about other countries that you cannot grasp as a tourist or even a teacher. We owe Lester for a network of researchers in every region of the world, and some of them became true friends.
At the beginning of JHCNP, it was really the Tower of Babel: every country had different and conflicting understandings of what nonprofit organizations were; in addition, many of us— including me—said to Lester that his project was unfeasible, because the empirical sources were non-existent. Despite our skepticism, Lester helped us to find common features to our different experiences and it was the origin of the consensus definition of nonprofit institutions, relying on five criteria, now included in the international system of national accounting. Despite our pessimism, we actually built detailed data for every country included in the project. It would have been impossible without Lester’s strong methodology and direction and above all his visionary and creative mind.
With good comparative empirical data, Lester proposed a new theoretical tool to explain the diversity of the nonprofit sector in the world—the social origins approach (Voluntas 1998, Explaining Civil Society Development, 2017). It was the construction of alternative welfare regimes—traditional, liberal, welfare partnership, social-democratic, and statist—which are now commonplace for students. He was also keen to see official statistics take over our experimental research, continuing “after our death,” he said. And this necessitated intensive lobbying of the UN Statistical Division (UNSD) and the International Labor Organization (ILO). Two successive UN handbooks on measurement of nonprofit organizations and related institutions (cooperatives, mutual societies and social enterprises) and the ILO Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work are the result of the consensus between Lester’s team of experts and international statisticians. Further, sustained lobbying of national statistical offices was necessary to implement these handbooks in various countries. Indeed, just a few weeks before his passing, Lester asked me to sign a petition to ILO to obtain international statistics of the labor force in the nonprofit sector more frequently than every seven years!
In addition to his academic excellence, Lester was a clever activist, with high-level values, knowing the right place to go for fundraising, team-building, and political support. Lester was eager to disseminate civil society organizations in authoritarian countries. I remember a visit to Japan, in Tokyo and Osaka, after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. We presented the results of the first phase of JHCNP in these two towns and then donated the proceeds of selling books to the few unorganized but efficient volunteers in destroyed and mourning Kobe. Since 1995, a large civil society sector has developed in Japan while it was nearly non-existent before.
I remember as well a meeting in Moscow in 2014 where Lester developed the first research center on nonprofit organizations in Russia; different types of occidental or oriental civil societies were presented to the emerging one in Russia. It ended with a huge gathering of young Russian organizations with so much goodwill and so little money. Lester, swarmed at the end of the meeting, was clearly a sign of hope for these Russian activists.
I remember, too, a meeting in Brussels that took place the day after the election of Donald Trump. Lester, as some of us, had stayed up all night to hear the results of the swing states and was bleak and desperate when arriving. He had to speak at the very beginning of the session and with his self-control and charisma, he made us interested in the future of the global civil society.
Finally, Lester was one of my best friends, despite the distance, and I will miss him so much. Every time he was in Paris, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife Lynda, he would call me and we would meet and share so many interests and memories. He was interested in others, remembering the first names of our spouses, the number of our children or grandchildren! He understood every one’s purpose and values and tried to learn what was strange to him. I remember that I explained to him and Ben a Catholic mass in an Italian church. He was eager to learn about the culture of the country that he visited. He spoke rarely of himself and his parents, but more of his Hungarian and central Europe origins and of his own family and grandchildren more often. He loved America and the dream of America, despite his acute critical eye on all its shortcomings.
It is really a privilege to have met Lester at the climax of my professional life through thirty years of collaboration and friendship.
August 25, 2021
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.