Robert Payton's Legacy: How to Educate Nonprofit Leaders

May 25, 2011

By the time he turned his attention to philanthropy, Robert L. Payton, who died last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 84, had already pursued a remarkable career.

He had been a jazz musician, a writer and editor, president of C.W. Post College and Hofstra University, a State Department official, and ambassador to the African republic of Cameroon. He had also served as a founding trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the organization that helped start The Chronicle of Higher Education.

When he was selected, in 1977, as head of the Exxon Education Foundation, Mr. Payton began a preoccupation with "voluntary action for the public good" (as he defined philanthropy) that would last the rest of his life.

But he will be remembered not because of the grants the foundation made during his decade-long tenure but because of the ideas he expressed about how nonprofit leaders and philanthropists should be educated.

Mr. Payton emphasized the importance of obtaining a broad understanding of society, rooted in the liberal arts, as much as professional skills, such as managing and evaluating grants and other kinds of nonprofit activities. (His papers outlining these ideas remain accessible at

However, as programs to train nonprofit executives and grant makers have proliferated at colleges and universities and in professional associations, they have often focused more on the "how's" of philanthropy than on its "why's," making Mr. Payton's critique of them even more pertinent today.

Mr. Payton himself was instrumental in the creation of one of the oldest of these programs, that of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

In the 1980s, as a trustee of Independent Sector, he worked (along with Virginia Hodgkinson, and the organization's founder, Brian O'Connell, who also died this year) to persuade colleges and universities to take the study of philanthropy more seriously and to better prepare students for public service.

Although a few colleges were already doing this, most notably Yale University, most institutions looked at nonprofits not as a group of organizations that had important features in common but rather as specialized institutions—hospitals, social-service organizations, art museums, and the like—and concentrated on teaching students the skills they needed to run them.

Moreover, in the eyes of many at the time, young people then coming of age—the so-called Gen X—seemed more intent on making money and acquiring material possessions than on helping other people and contributing to the improvement of society.

But to Mr. Payton, philanthropy was a special kind of occupation: a "vocation," in the sense used by the German sociologist Max Weber to denote a calling imbued with spiritual—if no longer only religious—meaning.

Knowing how institutions operated was not enough; understanding and acting on the moral judgments they embodied—or failed to—was at least as critical. Citing Weber again, Mr. Payton asked those who worked in nonprofit organizations, or hoped to, to consider whether they lived for philanthropy or off of philanthropy.

Education for such a calling required, in Mr. Payton's view, both students and people who worked for nonprofits to study philosophy, history, literature, and other subjects that explored moral issues. (Mr. Payton himself was a product of the University of Chicago's humanities program, known for its Great Books curriculum.) Indeed, the study of philanthropy—or in his term, "philanthropics"—should rightly be at the heart of a liberal education, he believed, since it grappled with fundamental moral questions, applied the insights of traditional academic disciplines to understanding them, and led toward (if it did not actually require) making decisions about what is right (or wrong).

"Philanthropy," he wrote, "is the context; exploratory discourse is the vehicle; and liberal education is the goal."

However, because of its commitment to disciplinary specialization and scientific methods, higher education, in Mr. Payton's view, was losing its ability to achieve that objective.

"Practice," he asserted, was overwhelming "theory" and reducing "education to training." In that context, he concluded, "bringing philanthropy into the university will be a hollow victory." Nor would such a curriculum be likely to inspire more students to pursue lives of public service.

Mr. Payton had an opportunity to put his ideas into practice as the first full-time director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (with which I am associated). From the start, the center was located in the university's School of Liberal Arts.

While students could learn how to manage nonprofits as part of professionally oriented programs, they could also pursue a master of arts in philanthropic studies, which required them to study history, philosophy, and other subjects that focused on the kinds of questions Mr. Payton viewed as fundamental to understanding philanthropy's moral dimensions. For many years, he also conducted what amounted to a Great Books seminar for a carefully chosen group of graduate students, the Jane Addams fellows, many of whom have already assumed leadership positions in the nonprofit world.

Both as a foundation executive and as a professor, Mr. Payton delighted in causing nonprofit executives to wrestle with big ideas as well. Though difficult to characterize politically, he invited, while serving as chair of the program committee for the Council on Foundations' 1980 annual meeting, the conservative writer Irving Kristol to deliver the closing address, which challenged the audience to avoid "the sin of pride" in their grant making ("Appreciating Irving Kristol's Impact on Philanthropy," The Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 1, 2009). His numerous presentations to nonprofit groups—which contributed to Independent Sector's decision to award him its highest honor, the John W. Gardner Leadership Award, in 2003—were sprinkled with references to classical and contemporary authors, whose thoughts, Mr. Payton felt, deserved more serious attention from philanthropists and nonprofit executives than they were receiving.

Despite those efforts, the approach to preparing people for careers at nonprofits that Mr. Payton criticized appears to have become more firmly entrenched. According to the latest survey by Seton Hall University's Roseanne Mirabella, the number of universities that offer graduate nonprofit-management education courses has increased by 87 percent since 1996.

However, while many are based in liberal-arts schools, the fastest growth has been occurring in professional ones, such as those devoted to public affairs or social work. Likewise, people seeking training to lead nonprofits are increasingly focused on improving their professional skills, such as evaluation and strategic management.

As Bob Payton understood, these developments reflect a longstanding tension between purpose and methods in philanthropy. But at a time when they may be in danger of being overlooked, his death is a reminder of the importance of studying, teaching, and acting on the moral aspects that distinguish philanthropy from other kinds of activity.

Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, where this article originally appeared.