Business School Professor Creates Executive Program for Local Nonprofit Leaders
For two days in October, more than 20 executives of nonprofit groups in Harlem came together at Columbia Business School for a leadership training program. To Professor Ray Horton, who joined the faculty in 1970, the new Strengthening West Harlem Nonprofits program represents the ideal alignment of University expertise and his own longstanding commitment to serving the local community. For the past three years, he has been in charge of social enterprise programs in the business school’s executive education division, which he sees as an important platform for enhancing the leadership skills of those working in many forms of public service.
“This is kind of a dream come true for me,” says Horton. “It bridges the gap between the practical business management skills that these nonprofit leaders already possess and the types of cutting-edge training in management principles that they would receive in a formal M.B.A. program.” The goal is to give these leaders new tools for effectively managing in the face of increasing demand for their services and decreasing budgets. The first group to go through the training, which was underwritten by a grant from the American Express Foundation, quickly saw benefits for their organizations and professional development.
“By the end of the session I was really clear what my core values are, where I want to lead from and what the result is that I would like to produce,” said Shirley Faison, executive director of The National Black Theatre.
Horton, the Frank R. Lautenberg Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance, has had an interest in the impact of management decisions on governments and nonprofits dating back to his days at Harvard Law School and subsequent graduate work in political science at Columbia. His dissertation on the development of collective bargaining for New York City municipal employees in the late 1960s led to his appointment to a commission set up during the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s.
For 15 years, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, he ran the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group for city finances and services, all while continuing to teach at Columbia Business School. From his hands-on work in municipal government, Horton learned a key lesson—that civil servants can benefit from professional management training. That realization led, in turn, to the establishment of a series of programs at the business school in public and nonprofit management, which have evolved over the years in response to students’ growing interest in corporate social responsibility, international development and the nonprofit sector.
In some ways Horton’s latest venture returns him to the passions that launched his academic career back in the ’60s.
Q. How did you end up becoming a professor in a business school?
The late ‘60s were a very difficult time for Columbia. The Business School was under assault from the students of the college. I think the Business School dean thought he needed somebody who was a nontraditional person, and I think as a lawyer and a political scientist I was viewed as a nontraditional person.
Q. What was the Temporary Commission on City Finances, and what work did you do there?
That was a commission that was set up during New York City’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s to study how to get out of the city’s long-term fiscal problems. I had learned a lot about New York City finances and Mayor Abraham Beame asked me if I would take a leave of absence from the Business School, which I did for two years, and I produced 20-some big reports which were by and large ignored by the city. We were after fundamental reforms that were not really politically feasible. It was a typical example of the academic working on policy problems and coming up with solutions that were not politically viable.
Q. In 1983 you started something at the Business School called the Public and Nonprofit Management Program. How did that start, and why did it become the Social Enterprise Program in 1998?
One thing I learned when I was working on city finances in the 1970s was that at the core of the city’s problems was that it was horribly managed. I sat down with the dean and I said, “We ought to start a program in public management. We ought to have a set of courses because the city needs people like Columbia Business School graduates who are trained in public management.” And that eventually become the program in Public and Nonprofit Management. That was a small program, really a sweat equity program that I ran for about 15 years out of my office with a part-time assistant. But we had a nucleus of students interested in government and the nonprofit sector, and I was sort of the employment officer for those students. In the late ’90s we began to think we should be reaching out to more than the students who were interested in public and nonprofit management. We thought we ought to teach corporate social responsibility to the students who wanted to be business leaders, social entrepreneurship to the young people who wanted to go out and start up nonprofit organizations, and international development to all the students who wanted to make the emerging markets a better place. And so it morphed into the Social Enterprise Program. I ran that from 1998 until 2009. Then Dean [Glenn] Hubbard suggested I take over running the nonprofit programs in executive education. We started Programs in Social Enterprise, which comprise two open-enrollment programs and a series of custom programs in such places as Saudi Arabia and Ireland as well as local institutions like the New York City police and fire departments. The newest of these customized programs is based in West Harlem.
Q. How do you define social enterprise?
It’s the application of business or management skills to the solution of social and environmental problems. That can be done through government, a nonprofit or a for-profit. It’s how you use management or business training to do something other than make as much money as possible, i.e. to make the world a better place.
Q. And this is something that’s really developed in the last 20 years or so?
Yes. In the 1990s, at least at Columbia Business School, there was a noticeable shift in the interests and values of business school students. I characterize it by saying there were fewer Gordon Gekkos walking the halls and more people who defined what they wanted to get out of business school less in monetary terms and more in social terms. I think some of it came from the corporate scandals of the early 2000s where you had Tyco and Worldcom and Enron, whose executives were basically looting the corporate store. Business school students were really disgusted by that. It grew so fast at Columbia partly because of the changing environment of students and because we put together a good program. It’s a major program at the business school now. The average enrollments in the Social Enterprise courses are larger than any other specialty in the school, including finance.
Q. Can you talk a little more about the program you established—Strengthening West Harlem Nonprofits— with the backing of the University’s Government and Community Affairs Office and American Express?
There are 21 organizations represented in the program, a mixture of arts or cultural organizations and social service organizations. We had three half-day sessions on leadership, dealing with topics like how a leader uses his or her values in the exercise of leadership, manages conflict in an organization and successfully uses teams of people in organizations. It worked out very well. I’m a nut on evaluation. We got a 4.8 out of 5, which is very good. My hope is that it will not be a one-shot deal. My hope is that the University and other organizations will support it going forward. I’d like to run a different program for the original 21 organizations and over the course of three or four or five years really dig deeply into each organization. We could do sessions for senior leaders—not the executive directors but a couple of people just below them—and for young stars in their organizations, where the leaders of the organizations select a person they think has the potential to be a great leader. I could see a program directed to board chairs and executive directors. Over a five-year period we could have a real impact on the quality of management and leadership of these organizations. And one thing that’s sometimes not recognized is that nonprofits historically have played a really important role in Harlem.
Q. Is it more important to have these social enterprise programs working now than when the economy is doing well?
As a management professor for so long, I believe that good management is always important, in good times or bad. But it’s particularly important in hard times, and these are definitely hard times. Most of these nonprofits are working with stagnant or declining revenues. The financial crisis dipped into the philanthropic dollar and reduced support from foundations and from wealthy individuals. Public funding of organizations is down. So these groups have fewer financial resources and therefore usually fewer human resources because most of the money that nonprofits have goes into staff. And because unemployment has been so high for so long, you have increasing demand for their services.
Q. You’ve taught modern political economy here at Columbia for about 15 years. How has the course changed over time?
The simple answer is it’s gotten a lot better. It’s divided into three parts. The first part has to do with a review of the grand masters of modern political economy, at least my grand masters: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman. Because these people are seldom read anymore, there are a lot of misconceptions about what they really believed and wrote. And so I spend the first part of the course really exploding the myths about Smith’s theory, about Marx’s theory. I have the students read the original works. The second part is about the evolution of the American political economy in the post-World War II period. The third gets into international political economy and revolves around America’s place in the world and how it’s changing. None of these presidential candidates would admit it, but America has undergone a decline in the international structure of power and one key question is who’s going to replace America as the world’s number one power.
Q. Since you teach modern political economy, what were some of your thoughts on the election?
The particular dynamics of American politics make it very difficult for presidential candidates to address the problems we are facing in a very serious way. Neither Obama nor Romney could admit that the United States of America is at a crossroads where if it doesn’t get its act together pretty soon it’s going to be very clearly a declining power. Nobody likes to hear that. The idea of American exceptionalism runs very strong, even though when you look at the comparative data on a lot of different things America’s no longer all that exceptional. In many respects we’re not leaders anymore. How often during the campaign did anybody talk about inequality? I don’t think the word ever came up. How often did the candidates talk about social mobility? They talked about education but with no clarity about how to make our declining system of primary and secondary education better. They talked about our perilous public finances—I have to give them credit for that— although they didn’t speak with much specificity. But huge problems like inequality, social immobility, financial deficits and economic decline are issues that they really never addressed very seriously.