Teaching Nonprofit Management Abroad, Part 1: Poland

7 May

At the end of a semester, Polish students must stand in line to get their grade forms and “index books” (their permanent record) signed by each instructor. At many Polish universities, grades are not submitted electronically.

By Mark Hoffman, Ph.D., associate professor and director, School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration, Grand Valley State University

At GVSU’s School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration, about half our 450 undergraduate and graduate students are primarily interested in careers in nonprofit management. As I discovered during my 2011-2012 sabbatical, this is not true everywhere. During my sabbatical, I taught nonprofit management at three universities in Poland and South Korea. I may have been the first instructor to lecture on this topic at these schools. Why the big difference? While engaging in conversation with students inside and outside of the classroom, I was able to ascertain how attitudes differ from those of GVSU’s students. I will begin with my observations about Poland, and leave South Korea for my next post.

Many things done by nonprofits in the U.S. are expected to be handled by Polish government agencies. Although now somewhat dated, statistics from the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project indicate only 0.8 percent of the economically active Polish population works at nonprofits, either as paid staff or volunteers. This compares to 9.8 percent in the U.S.

When Polish students hear “nonprofit” or “nongovernmental organization” they think primarily of charities, especially faith-based charities. According to Giving In Europe, around 15,000 registered Polish nonprofits are religious, while only 4,000 are nonreligious. The Roman Catholic Church and its various organs fill most of this space, and the Church is very protective of this monopoly. Priests and nuns are not in such short supply as in the U.S., so they are more active in the leadership roles of Catholic-affiliated organizations. Catholic students are thus less apt to envision futures as nonprofit managers. Students with leftist or libertarian inclinations are critical of the Church’s strong social and political role, and pejoratively refer to the older people who dominate Catholic organizations as the “mohair berets.” Thus, these students see little attractiveness to managing nonprofit organizations.

Many American students choose to study nonprofit management because they believe this will make them happier in the long run; they value the opportunity to make a difference more than high pay. In contrast, Polish students are much less apt to see their scholastic and career choices as an exercise in self-actualization. Polish students anticipate that their jobs will be unpleasant, so receiving the most pay and having the greatest job security is their rational objective. Although higher education is free, Poland is a relatively poor country and students do not take for granted either their post-graduation employability or ability to provide for a family. Within the limits imposed by their standardized test scores and other circumstances, Polish students choose the school and major with the best reputation for securing a graduate’s economic wellbeing. Nonprofit management in Poland is not going to make the short list for these students.

As in many former Soviet-bloc countries, the legacy of Communism and its mandatory volunteering degraded the whole concept of volunteering. This has been pointed out in several studies, including Éva Kuti’s 2004 article in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. Many Poles associate volunteering with the old system and find it incongruous with the new capitalist values. Free time should be spent in entrepreneurial endeavors that, if successful, could lead to a better life.

I did see some signs of change. The Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy Foundation (WOŚP), or Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation, has become one of the most successful and highest profile Polish nonprofits. Led by the flamboyant and outspoken Jerzy Owsiak, WOŚP has raised millions of dollars for public hospitals serving sick children. WOŚP is very popular with Polish youth, partly because it is the sponsor of one of Europe’s largest free music festivals. WOŚP biggest fundraiser occurs on the first or second Sunday of every year with hundreds of events all across the country. This usurpation of Sunday, along with Owsiak’s libertine slogan “do what you want,” has caused friction between WOŚP and the Catholic Church. WOŚP fundraising is prohibited on church grounds. In retaliation, WOŚP has promoted its collaborations with non-Catholic religious organizations. Every year, WOŚP exceeds the previous year’s fundraising by about $U.S. one million.

Even if the activities of WOŚP and other nonprofit organizations generated student interest in nonprofit management, it is unlikely that Polish universities would respond very quickly with nonprofit management courses. University education is free to qualifying students; because universities are not tuition-seeking, student satisfaction is not their highest priority. Polish universities are administered by their faculties, with the rector (president) and deans chosen by faculty vote. This leads to protection of the status quo, with the strongest impetus for change coming from the Ministry of Education. Student course evaluations are a relatively new innovation. The Ministry has also mandated that universities start tracking the placement of their graduates. As higher education is government funded, and Poland is not a wealthy country, universities are chronically underfunded and most faculty members have cramped quarters (two or three persons per office), high teaching loads (about 18 hours in the classroom per week), and little professional mobility. With these conditions, it will take considerable time for nonprofit management to make its way into the classroom.

For their ideas and comments, I would like to thank Kamil Makiela, assistant professor at Kielce University of Technology, Aleksandra Boryka, alumnae of both Grand Valley State University and Cracow University of Economics, and Wojtek Solak, Project Manager at the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw.  

Established in 1992 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy is a university-based center serving nonprofits, foundations, and others seeking to transform their communities for the public good. The Johnson Center is recognized for its applied research and professional development benefiting practitioners and nonprofits through the faculty and staff of the Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy, The Foundation Review, The Grantmaking School, Johnson Center Philanthropy Archives and Library, and Philanthropic and Nonprofit Services.

Grand Valley State University is a four-year public university. It attracts nearly 25,000 students with high-quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 82 undergraduate and 30 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from regional centers in Muskegon and Traverse City. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships. Grand Valley employs more than 2,000 people and is committed to providing a fair and equitable environment for the continued success of all.

The Johnson Center receives ongoing support from the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation,Dyer-Ives Foundation, Frey Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

For more information, contact Robert Shalett, director of communications for the Johnson Center, at 616-331-7585.

One Response to “Teaching Nonprofit Management Abroad, Part 1: Poland”


  1. Teaching Nonprofit Management Abroad, Part 2: South Korea | Johnson Center for Philanthropy - June 11, 2013

    […] a previous posting, I discussed what I had learned about nonprofit education in Poland. This week I’ll discuss my […]

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