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Professor's new book on nonprofits aimed at undergrads

Mary Feeney's new book is an undergraduate primer on nonprofits
December 08, 2014

Mary Feeney enjoys teaching undergraduate students about nonprofits. After all, the tax exempt organizations are an important part of American society. Nonprofits raise awareness about social causes, help organize communities and serve people who have nowhere else to turn. But finding a proper book to use was difficult for the associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, which is a part of the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University.

“We have all these undergraduates who are very interested in public service, in engaging in their communities, doing volunteer work and working for nonprofit organizations,” says Feeney. "And there isn't really a clear curriculum for training undergraduates about nonprofit organizations. In fact, most of the textbooks out there are about management because they are targeting master students.”

Feeney had an opportunity to do something about it. She was invited to co-author a book with University of Illinois at Chicago professor Kelly LeRoux examining the evolution of nonprofits, the role they serve and their impact on communities. Published in November, “Nonprofit Organizations and Civil Society in the United States” is now available from Routledge books in hard cover, paperback and electronic form.

“What we were really wanting to do was write a book that was interdisciplinary and much more introductory,” Feeney says. "A book that would really speak to what undergraduates need to learn about nonprofit organizations – their role in society in general, their role in the U.S. economy, the sort of special status they have in our tax system, which makes nonprofits here quite different than in other countries.”

The 371-page book is broken into four sections. The first introduces the concept of civil society and how religious and American values influenced the roles nonprofits would play. The second section of the book details how nonprofits add to the social fabric of America through community building, volunteerism and philanthropy. The third illuminates the role and impact of nonprofits on politics, policy and the economy. The final section looks at the challenges nonprofits face, as well as opportunities, including their impact through social media.

“Nonprofit organizations play a key role in civil society in the United States,” says Feeney. “That role is defined by the type of government, economic and social structure that we have in this country. And so, nonprofits play this important part by providing service and support to society. But at the same time, their existence and the way they operate is shaped by American society.”

The book examines nonprofits not through the lens of a single discpline, but through many. That approach is appealling to University of Mary Washington economics professor Robert Rycroft who credits the authors for their ability to synethesis divergent approaches.

"I am an economist but would welcome the opportunity to use this book because they have done of good job with the economics and all the other aspects of the field," says Rycroft. "Similarly it could be used by sociologists, political scientists, historians, and virtually everyone who would try to teach this topic from any discipline. The quality of writing is great and the example and case studies are compelling and contemporary." 

The book is illustrated with both historic and current examples that showcase a wide variety of nonprofits and social movements. It includes some colorful examples, such as the World Naked Bike Ride, a play off the Critical Mass movement where bicyclists protest car-centric culture by demonstrating en mass.

Feeney says the book can be used in a variety of classes and disciplines, not just those that focus exclusively on nonprofits. It could also be helpful to people who are just starting careers in nonprofit organizations and aren’t aware of their history and scope.

“It was actually super fun to write,” Feeney says. “We took a format of providing a lot of background and history and theory about nonprofits, but then talking about nonprofits within a context that can be relevant and make sense to undergraduates. So there are a lot of sidebars in the book and examples from current events and news and things that I think undergraduates can get their heads around quite easily.”