As I sat down to write my annual review narrative, on a Friday afternoon in February, I was struck by the realization – not for the first time in my career – that my work has taken a very strange turn. I sat down expecting to have to write something along the lines of “the administrative parts of my role have expanded so much recently that I haven’t gotten much in the way of research and other professional activity done” in order to acknowledge and account for the gaps in the year’s work. In fact, I’d spent the last couple of weeks, when I expected to be working on my book revisions, instead neck-deep in financial reporting and analysis for Humanities Commons. This is for sure not something I was ever trained for or expected to take on in my career, and it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to fit into the usual research/teaching/service categories. Amusingly enough, in that same two week span, I’d been told both by my college’s CFO and by a consultant I’ve been working with that if I ever wanted a career change I could move into finance. Which, ha ha, of course that will never happen.
But as I started thinking about the two years I needed to report on, I realized that such a career shift kind of is happening. Over the last two years a huge percentage of my time and attention has been focused on getting the Commons into a position of financial sustainability without allowing the project’s deepest values to erode. I’ve hired and led a phenomenal team that’s building the platform and developing the community it supports and have worked with them to establish business and interpersonal processes that will allow the project to grow without losing sight of our most important goals. And as I started working on my narrative, it finally dawned on me that all of that work is fully aligned with the arguments I’m making in Leading Generously. I think it turns out that my current research and professional trajectory is focused on developing, and helping others develop, the leadership and decision-making skills that can enable projects and organizations dedicated to the social good not only to survive but to help transform the landscape in which we all work today.
This project has taken a few primary forms, including a lot of learning. Over the last two-plus years I’ve had the privilege of working with the Nonprofit Finance Fund as part of a Mellon Foundation funded cohort of digital humanities projects and organizations seeking sustainability and fiscal maturity. That work involved, in the first year, a schedule of Zoom-based seminars in which we were introduced to the principles of full-cost accounting and developing financial projections, and was followed by a year-plus of regular meetings with our consultants as we developed the five-year projections that led to an application to the Mellon Foundation for a change capital grant designed to enable us to advance our business models toward sustainability. In addition to the work with NFF, during Spring 2022 I attended a five-week leadership master class offered by ZingTrain (one of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses!), and right now I’m participating in another five-week seminar offered by the Raw Signal Group. Each of these explores the different ways that leadership can and must be grounded in values such as care, equity, and generosity, and each makes the argument that such principles are at the heart of developing good business practices.
I originally signed up for the ZingTrain master class as part of the process of my research toward the revision of Leading Generously. This project is a follow-on to Generous Thinking and is focused on the how of change-making in the academy, the grass-roots leadership skills and commitments to solidarity that have the potential to transform our institutions. The project, tentatively subtitled Tools for Transformation, is under advance contract to Hopkins Press. It’s more than a little late, not least because everything that I’ve been learning keeps causing my argument to shift. The manuscript has been through two rounds of open review at this point – first in fall 2020 as a series of blog posts, and then, after revision, in fall 2022 as a revised manuscript. I’m now revising based on that latter review, if way more slowly than I’d really like.
In no small part the delays have come because of the amazing hands-on work that I’ve gotten to do in the last two years with the Commons team. As I mentioned above, we were able to apply to the Mellon Foundation for a change capital grant as part of the NFF cohort, and in September 2021 we were awarded $971,000, which released an additional $323,000 from our NEH Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant. That combined fund has allowed us to hire four new members of the Commons team, all of whom are making huge contributions to moving the platform forward. In 2022, we also collaborated with Julie Libarkin, Associate Dean for STEM Education Research and Innovation in the office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, on a grant proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation. This project, which we’re calling DBER+ Commons, is building on the things we’ve learned at Humanities Commons about building collaborative research communities and using them to create a similar network for STEM education researchers worldwide. That proposal was successful, and we have received a three-year, $1.25 million grant as part of the inaugural FAIROS RCN (or Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable Open Science Research Coordination Network) cohort at the NSF.
We have a lot of work ahead to move the Commons onto firm financial ground, but the support we’ve received is helping tremendously, as is the ongoing education I’m receiving in financial and organizational thinking. I’m not yet sure where this will lead my research and writing to turn, once Leading Generously is done, but I’m hoping that some solid time to read and think about the connections among nonprofit leadership, social theory, and work toward equity and justice will point me in the right direction.
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