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ARNOVA's 48th Annual Conference

San Diego, California
November 21-23, 2019
Nonprofits and Philanthropy in a Polarized World: Speaking Truth to Power and Using Power to Speak Truth


We live in an increasingly polarized world—full of dichotomies and dualisms: Us versus them, the haves and the have nots, “light” versus “dark,” good versus evil. We see this in diverse settings around the globe: contested transitions of power in the Republic of Congo and elsewhere, refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Central America, nativist reactions to immigrant “others” in European countries absorbing refugees. In the US the intensity of us versus them results in loss of civil discourse, challenges to democratic norms and practices, and violent acts against the “other.” Intentional polarization can be a powerful tool for silencing and intimidating the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed… and, at times, magnifying the voices of those at the fringes of society.

Nonprofits, NGOs, and voluntary associations are inextricably linked to the economic, political, and socially polarized world in which we inhabit. As scholars and practitioners, we focus on the good that our sector brings to the world through NGO relief organizations aiding the displaced, philanthropists donating to help the poor and disadvantaged, activists peacefully organizing to bring change, faith-based institutions providing sanctuary and community.  But there is also a dark side: hate groups organized as nonprofits advancing xenophobic, racist, and sexist agendas; dark money in politics undermining democratic processes and policies for the common good; and voluntary actions with the intention to cause harm.  

As scholars and practitioners, we call on the community to grapple with dualisms and the role of the sector to identify and ameliorate dichotomies, to champion successful bridging and bonding strategies, to courageously speak truth to power, and continue to advance missions and values for the common good. We especially encourage submissions that address polarization, explore dualisms and dichotomies from multidisciplinary lenses: What can we learn from the humanities about understanding dualism? From historians about philanthropy's role during historical patterns of polarization? From political scientists about the 501(c)4 and 527 nonprofits contributing to polarization? From linguists about the framing and use of language that creates and exacerbates dichotomies? From economists about inequality and the role of the nonprofit sector in mitigating impacts? From public administration scholars about sector relationships that facilitate dichotomy and dualism? From sociologists about how class, race, ethnicity, and gender divide and unite? We invite practitioners to explore how sector leadership combats polarization. There are big questions to ponder such as how do foundations combat or contribute to economic, political, and social divides? What role does wealth as expressed through individual philanthropy contribute to or mitigate polarization? What role do or should lesser studied nonprofits, such as unions, have in a polarized world?  What role can and do cooperatives and other forms of social enterprise have in creating solutions?

The 2019 ARNOVA conference will be in San Diego, CA, a city at the heart of the emerging Cali-Baja Binational Mega Region, which encompasses the area known as California – Baja Mexico. With a combined population of more than 6.5 million, CaliBaja boasts the largest concentration of persons living along the U.S.-Mexico border, near perfect weather, natural beauty, a world-famous zoo, and is home to more than 90 colleges and universities and over 80 research institutes. Despite these desirable characteristics, San Diego’s nonprofit and philanthropic sector finds itself at the intersection of many of the most polarizing issues facing contemporary civil society. The region is at the frontlines of the immigration debate—grappling with the dualism of sustaining a binational community and militarily enforcing border protection. San Diego is a hotbed of innovation; yet, the city grapples with extremes in wealth, a growing homeless population, and a shortage of affordable housing. San Diego’s prized natural beauty is threatened by environmental regulatory changes, population growth pressures, and climate change. In the face of these challenges, the region is leveraging its many existing resources to innovate and model sustainable solutions. Thus, San Diego provides a timely and germane setting for a meeting of nonprofit and philanthropy scholars to discuss how nonprofits speak truth to power and use their power to speak truth.

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