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Volunteerism Scholar Ram Cnaan Speaks at Cornia Lecturer Series

On March 31, 2022, the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at the BYU Marriott School of Business held a luncheon to honor the newest recipient of the Gary C. Cornia Lecturer Series award, which is named after a former dean of BYU Marriott. The award was given to Ram Cnaan, the director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.

Ram Cnaan, the newest recipient of the Gary C. Cornia Lecturer Series, is the director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Okerlund.

At the banquet, Cnaan shared a presentation that touched on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nonprofit organizations. “Many nonprofits had problems adjusting to the pandemic because they didn’t know what to do,” he explained. "These organizations suffered a sudden blow and had to reorganize and rearrange themselves. Many public nonprofit places, such as museums, had to close their doors to the people and patrons they relied on—the people who previously donated or paid for services. Losing these patrons contributed to financial problems and organizational challenges.”

Cnaan highlighted one organization in particular that experienced these challenges: MANNA Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition (MANNA), an organization based in Philadelphia. Cnaan conducted research with MANNA about its volunteers before the pandemic and wanted to compare that data with further data collected during the pandemic.

He noted that before the pandemic, the organization benefited from numerous organized groups that each volunteered once or twice a year. However, during the pandemic, these numbers completely switched: a mere 10 percent of the volunteer workers gave 60 percent of the total volunteer hours.

“Before the pandemic, MANNA had a three-month-long waitlist. With an abundance of volunteers available for the organization to access, we found that the leaders of MANNA didn’t value their core group, their frequent volunteers, as much as they should have,” explained Cnaan. “We suggested that the organization pay attention to a core of loyal volunteers and start cultivating relationships with them. The people in a nonprofit organization are what allow that organization to thrive.”

Cnaan expressed similar sentiments to the students he met with during his visit to BYU Marriott. He emphasized that students should make volunteering a regular part of their lives. “Volunteering keeps our society thriving and makes us happy to be a part of our communities,” he says. “We belong to groups. We need interaction. What better way is there to act than to be generous, appreciative, and supportive toward the people around us? If we want to help our communities, we need to help others improve their quality of life.”

Cnaan accepts a painting from Dan Heist, an assistant professor of public administration and nonprofit management in the Romney Institute at BYU Marriott.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Okerlund.

Alongside his research on volunteerism, Cnaan is also involved in his own projects designed to help others improve their quality of life. He is the faculty director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative, which hopes to help citizens return to their communities and readjust to their lives after incarceration.

“I completed a study about what faith communities do to help returning citizens,” he explains. “During this study, I learned how difficult reentering society is after prison. I thought, ‘Nobody talks about this issue.’” Cnaan’s program works with people for three months while they are in prison and for three months after their release. So far, the program is the only one of its kind.

Cnaan received a bachelor’s degree in 1975 and a master’s degree in 1977, both in social work from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Additionally, he earned his PhD in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1981. Cnaan is especially interested in studying volunteering and community organizations.

The Gary C. Cornia Lecture Series Award is presented annually by the Romney Institute. The lecture series aims to host distinguished scholars from outside BYU Marriott to help broaden and refine the influence of the Romney Institute.


Writer: Sarah Calvert