Conferences / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Reflections on History and ARNOVA

Editors’ Note: On Friday, at its annual conference in Chicago, ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) held a mini-plenary: “History, Nonprofits Organizations and Voluntary Associations: Plenary in Honor of Peter Dobkin Hall” at which scholars in the field debated the role that history should play within the research organization. They also discussed the legacy of Peter Dobkin Hall, the historian whose work on the “invention of the nonprofit sector” proved so influential in those debates in the past, and who passed away last April. The plenary opened with remarks from David Hammack, a frequent HistPhil contributor and the Hiram C. Haydn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. His talk is transcribed below. 

I would begin by defining history as “Stories we tell in the present, claiming to tell truths about events in the past, in the hope of changing the future.”

William Cronin, a recent president of the American Historical Association, put it this way: “In the beginning was the story. Or rather: many stories, of many places, in many voices, pointing toward many ends.”

Cronin conceded that “history as an endless struggle among competing narratives and values may not seem very reassuring. How, for instance, are we to choose among the infinite stories that our different values seem capable of generating?”

History poses many challenges for those doing applied social science. It inescapably forces us into hard thought about alternative perspectives. It denies the possibility of neutral objectivity. It insists that we recognize that every story involves the assertion of authority and power.

And applied social science is ARNOVA’s dominant concern. So it is also true that the field of research into nonprofit organizations and voluntary action also poses a big challenge to historians.

One challenge has to do with the way we frame our inquiries about nonprofit organizations and voluntary action.

Do we emphasize the independence and sustainability of nonprofit organizations?

Do we emphasize the desires and experiences of the clients, patients, and students who use nonprofits?

Do we emphasize the aims of the government entities that directly and indirectly (through tax expenditures, grants, contracts, and especially through reimbursement of medical and other services) fund much more than half of all nonprofit activity?

Do we emphasize social movements? Concern for the underserved? Inequality?

Do we emphasize religious commitments and assertions of religious concerns? Or the difficult struggle to establish social peace, civility, tolerance?

History and Historians also raise questions about the quality of any study. They ask,

Does the study take full account of relevant known facts about the past? Keeping in mind that today becomes the past overnight, this question challenges the default assumption of economic analysis (and much policy analysis), ceteris paribus – everything else being equal – because circumstances constantly change.

Does the study take full account of the best knowledge in all the relevant disciplines?

Does the study take full account of the perspectives of all those who have knowledge of the topic, including all who participated in events?

These and other preoccupations make historians a pain in the neck. Historians are reluctant to agree that anything is new, that any account is complete, that any attribution of cause and effect is persuasive. They emphasize the complexity and indeterminancy of events, and demand that we engage competing perspectives. Yet they also insist on clear writing, coherence, and good stories, stories that persuade.

It must be tempting for non-historians who engage with ARNOVA to say, enough! I don’t need this bother! In turn, many historians whose work is relevant to ARNOVA have certainly felt ARNOVA does not provide a welcoming forum for them.

Going forward, I hope we can make a larger place for history in ARNOVA, something Peter Dobkin Hall certainly sought to do.

Peter Hall won attention for his insistence that America’s “nongovernmental organizations” derived “their special character and their crucially important function in the American polity” from “a particular institutional culture, a configuration of values, resources, organizational technologies, legal infrastructure, and styles of leadership.”

Peter and I debated these matters while he was alive, and one of his chief aims was to stimulate debate. On this occasion I would honor his contributions by identifying some historical debates they provoke.

Other historians have argued that in the U.S. nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations owe their existence not to a dominant institutional culture, but to efforts to manage conflicts among conflicting cultures.

Other historians have argued that in the U.S. key factors in shaping nonprofit organizations have included the separation of church and state, the First Amendment, and the relative autonomy of the nonprofit corporation, and that these arose and gained their contemporary definition during religious, sectional, and racial conflicts that sometimes involved massive bloodshed, and might well have shed more.

Still other historians have argued that nonprofits preserved some space for “liberty of conscience” or devotion to artistic excellence or free scientific inquiry in a nation that simultaneously allowed anti-intellectual, conformity-demanding religious and patriotic movements to flourish.

Altogether, histories of nonprofit and voluntary matters have told many stories – all in the hope of changing the future.

-David C. Hammack

David C. Hammack is the Hiram C. Hadyn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. He has written extensively on the history of America’s civil society and nonprofit sector and on the history of cities, the built environment, and education.


Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History, March, 1992, pp. 1347-1376.

Peter Dobkin Hall, Inventing the Nonprofit Sector and Other Essays on Philanthropy, Voluntarism, and Nonprofit Organizations. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Peter Dobkin Hall and Colin B. Burke, “Nonprofit, Voluntary, and Religious Entities,” in Carter, S. B., Gartner, S. S., Haines, M. R., Olmstead, A. L., Sutch, R., & Wright, G., editors. 2006. Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

David C. Hammack, Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (Indiana University Press, 1998; paperback, 2000); also see Kathleen D. McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865 (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

David C. Hammack, “Nonprofit Organizations in American History: Research Opportunities and Sources,” The American Behavioral Scientist (Vol. 45 No. 11, July 2002, pp. 1638-1674).

David C. Hammack, “Waves Of Historical Interest In Philanthropy And Civil Society, Part I,” and “Part II: Debating The Basis Of American Civil Society, Waves Of Debate About Religion And Virtue,” June, 2015, on

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