Sustaining Lives in Despair


A Pracademic Approach to the Pandemic

This is a piece of pracademic writing. Pracademics is the application of research-based thinking to the practice of program development and management.

Indeed, I was there at the conception of this term, in 1989 if memory serves me well. I was sitting next to my colleague Hank Rubin in the middle of an auditorium filled with academics and nonprofit practitioners. We were listening to a session being conducted by the Independent Sector organization. Hank, director at that time of the nonprofit studies program at Roosevelt University in Chicago, rose to make a brief statement during which he observed that many of us in the hall were both academics and practitioners. We were, therefore, he announced, “pracademicians”!

Certainly Hank and I and other colleagues in that room  were not the first to merit that title. I can certify that pracademics were around in earlier generations, being, as the son of progressive educator William Van Til, a second generation pracademic myself. This concept also became the focus of an important section of ARNOVA, whose current president, Pier Rogers, proudly stated in her inaugural lecture that she was the first declared pracademic to be elected to that position. And now, the term “pracademic” has come to stand at the center of a joint project between GrantStation and ARNOVA.

In this initial article for the project, I’ll be focusing on several pracademic initiatives that have recently been developed in the city of Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey by partners coming together from their bases in academic, corporate, nonprofit, and governmental life. These collaborative efforts are solidly based on a central theory of pracademia, the theory of coproduction.

Not surprisingly, the central ideas in coproduction came of age as the field of voluntary action studies  began to blossom in the 1970s and 1980s. When I moved to chair the Department of Urban Studies at the urban campus of Rutgers University in Camden in 1974, it was because that department, though not yet that campus, was committed to working closely with and for its surrounding community. “Coproduction” appeared in titles of papers I wrote in 1982 and 1985, and was the central subject of a long essay included in my 1988 book, Mapping the Third Sector.

Over the past several decades, coproduction has grown as a field of scholarly interest in a wide range of social sciences. For those focusing on society’s third sector (variously also called voluntary, nonprofit, philanthropic, charitable, civil), the functioning of coproductive relations between organizations and institutions in each major societal sector (government, business, core culture, and nonprofit) has become a busy arena for research, especially in Europe. Important books and journal issues have been written and edited by a number of leading scholars.

The key idea in coproduction involves the redefinition of the client as beneficiary of social service delivered by nonprofit or governmental agencies. By becoming a producer as well as a consumer of service, improved quality, as well as reduced cost, is anticipated. In my 1988 book, I explained:

Public order in a city is produced not only by the actions of municipal employees—police, courts, and corrections officials--but also by the interaction of those officials with an alert and watchful citizenry. As Jane Jacobs has noted, the parent watching his or her child at play in the street below, or the neighbor seemingly idly chatting on the front steps, play important roles in the provision of urban order. Their very presence dissuades the criminal or vandal from striking. The vigilance of the urban citizenry performs the tasks of street surveillance with far greater efficiency then the limited ranks of police personnel, who may therefore concentrate their efforts on quick response to reported crimes.

As with public order, so with nearly every other municipal service. The cleanliness of streets results from both the proper disposal of trash and its effective collection. The minimization of loss by fire results from citizen attention to prevention and prompt reporting, as well as from the skills of the fire department. The provision of adequate shelter involves the attention of homeowners and tenants to the maintenance of property, as well as the regulatory attention of city enforcers and licensors. The maintenance of public health results from the prevalence of proper diet and habits adopted by individuals, as well as from the availability of doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medicine.

The list of services to which coproduction may be applied can be extended to include drug abuse, family planning, and nutrition. Programs in each of these areas depend ”as much on the efforts of clients to secure and utilize information” as they do upon the abilities of staff members.  “Similarly,” writes political scientist Richard Rich, “one frequently hears that the amount of education a child actually derives from public school attendance is determined at least as much by his or her own effort to learn and parents’ support of educational norms as by the efforts of classroom teachers and school administrators.”

I had the splendid privilege of living in Istanbul for six weeks as a Fulbright specialist in 2019. My appointment was centered at Marmara University, and of course I had the opportunity to visit a number of neighborhoods in the vast Istanbul conurbation. With its 20 million residents, many of whom were poorly registered migrants who had fled from Syria, I sometimes wondered how the city and its residents would cope in the face of a potential crisis. Then came the pandemic, and the need for replacement income became extreme. Many depended on the small shops that line the city streets and were forced to close their doors as they lost their customers. 

In desperation, those in need turned to nonprofit organizations whose capacity had been suddenly reduced by lockdown, and governmental welfare systems already burdened by the limited resources provided them.  Professor Erhan Dogan, chair of the public administration program at Marmara University, described the governmental response in a recently published paper:

One political party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has been ruling the country since 2002. In the 2010s, AKP governments have taken steps to further centralize the state, and later transformed the parliamentary system into a heavily centralized executive-style presidency in 2018. Despite this establishment of centralized power, for the first time since 2002, the AKP lost power in three major cities in 2019 local elections: Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir, which constitute about half of Turkey’s GDP. Not only in these cities, but control of municipalities of other major cities such as Adana and Antalya were also passed to opposition parties. The first year in office of these mayors, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, has been marked by tensions with the central government under President Erdoğan. On top of this, before their first year at office was over, COVID-19 was confirmed to have reached Turkey on 11 March 2020. 

Tensions persisted between President Erdogan and the mayors, with the national government seeking to block local fundraising campaigns and then establishing its own fundraising initiative. According to Professor Dogan, “The opposition mayors resisted these limitations and pressures and spearheaded solidarity initiatives to provide assistance for individuals affected by the lockdown.”

In corners of Istanbul’s cyberspace in which academic, corporate, nonprofit, and political leadership found themselves able to converse by means of Zoom or Skype, ideas were raised and shared. One set of conversations drew its energy from an idea presented by a widely respected pracademic—to find new ways of paying bills for household necessities that would otherwise not be honored in the face of pandemic realities. Professor Dogan explains what next happened:

One of these solidarity initiatives involved the campaign titled ‘paying a neighbor’s bill’ (Askıda Fatura). After being blocked by the central government, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, under Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’s rule, started this initiative, in which a digital payment portal is provided for those citizens who want to pay water and gas bills of fellow burghers who had lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic. The municipality guaranteed donors that the invoices belonged to the people in need, developing a need evaluation system to provide this assurance. With this practice the municipality also increased its revenues as unpaid city water and gas bills were paid. Thus was accomplished a triple win, not only for citizens and government, but later on, families in need, as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality added ‘family support’ and ‘mother-kid support’ packages to this initiative. In the period between May 4, 2020, and September 14, 2020, 180,174 bills amounting to more than 3.8 million dollars were paid in this way.

In Istanbul, as in thousands of other cities around the world, the issues raised by the pandemic give rise to the urgent need for new solutions to mounting crises. In Turkey, citizens of other cities developed programs suited to their situations. Ankara established a “hot meal for everyone” campaign, open to all citizens in need. And, acting in coproduction with Turkey’s largest religious community. its mayor called upon companies and philanthropists to take the lead in “An iftar from me” program to provide the daily meal (the iftar) during the Ramadan month of fasting. Citizens could send an iftar by paying 15 TL (around two dollars) online to a website launched by the municipality. Though the campaign started in Ankara, people from different cities started to make donations and the campaign was extended to all Turkey in a very short period of time.

The Turkish experience, providing as it does a significant and immediate response to pressing social need, signifies the importance of community-based voluntary action. Large organizations, whether governmental, corporate, or nonprofit, may lag behind the explosion in social need that characterizes crisis. Recent research in India, South Africa, Hungary, and the UK indicates the importance of an immediate provision of basic resources by neighbors and communities when a crisis like the pandemic presents itself. In one of a remarkable series of webinars organized by the GITA common interest group of ARNOVA, Bhekinkosi Moyo, Director of the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment at The University of Witwatersrand in Johannesberg, points to the power of the traditional “African Way” of behaving in a time of crisis: “In our community, one does not let one’s neighbor go to bed hungry.”  

In my 1988 book, I discussed how coproduction might be conducted in times of crisis:

If partnerships are to be entered, it is important that the stakes of the game being played are understood. To talk of coproduction in a time of social crisis is to set about building new social institutions: community economic ventures of a variety of sorts, worker-owned stores and factories, neighborhood-based cooperatives, (and, yes, I add at the present writing in 2021—ways of immediately directing funds and credits to neighbors in desperate need). Such people-run economic enterprises will require capital, management experience, and political support. They will, in short, be coproduced between local governments, voluntary organizations, and those corporations and holders of capital determined enough to venture into new and uncharted social and economic waters.

Wrapping up: does it not seem clear that we all need to find ways of coproducing in this time of pandemic challenge? If we are academic, should we not try our hand at pracademia? If we are in business or corporate life, is this not the time to network widely across the sectors in a search for innovative ways to meet the desperate needs of our time? If we hold a governmental position, is this not the time to be open to the receipt of voluntary funding responsive to increasing needs? If we are a manager, practitioner, volunteer, or activist with a nonprofit organization, is this not the time to realize that a wide range of very special responses are required? If we are citizens, and our need is less than our neighbor for the special governmental funds soon to be distributed, at least in the U.S., is this not the time to put as much of that payment as we can into ways of giving that will truly sustain lives in despair?

Action steps you can take today
  • Read our interview with Jon Van Til, Nonprofits in an Era of Growing Challenges, about the role of the nonprofit sector in times of upheaval.
  • Learn more about our partnership with ARNOVA to deliver some of the latest research being done on the nonprofit sector