Carrie Oelberger Awarded McKnight Professorship to Support Research in Nonprofit Work Dynamics

The two-year grant from the University of Minnesota recognizes promising junior faculty
May 10, 2023
Portrait of Carrie Oelberger
Carrie Oelberger, an assistant professor in the Humphrey School's leadership and management area, has been awarded a McKnight Land-Grant Professorship for the next two years. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Humphrey School Assistant Professor Carrie Oelberger is being recognized as one of the University of Minnesota’s most exceptional junior faculty members as a recipient of a 2023 McKnight Land-Grant Professorship.

Oelberger will receive a $50,000 grant over the next two years to support her research, which focuses on why nonprofits and other organizations that aim to address social and environmental challenges often fail to realize their lofty intentions. 

“I am tremendously honored to receive this award, which is a validation of the impact of my work more broadly on society,” said Oelberger, who joined the Humphrey School’s leadership and management area in 2014, after earning her PhD in organizational studies from Stanford University. 

In plain terms, Oelberger has found that “prosocial organizations” (such as aid organizations, NGOs, foundations, and the like) can be terrible places to work.

“They're often so myopically focused on their external goals, they don’t create space to discuss how to take care of their employees,” Oelberger said. “Even when employees want a life outside of work, they still prioritize work—because so much of their identity is wrapped up in their work. We need an explicit discussion about this tension so we can support employees AND advance the organization’s goals.”

Her interest in the subject goes back to her post-college days, when she worked for seven years in East Africa, promoting community-based educational opportunities for girls in Tanzania. Oelberger created a nonprofit organization, raised funds to build a study center, and helped to develop the center until it was handed over to the local government. While she’s proud of her accomplishments, she said the experience revealed the darker side of nonprofit work. 

“I saw inequities across local and expatriate staff within large NGOs, faced inequities in the ways that funding is dispersed between local and international NGOs, and saw how people engaging in the work had a hard time balancing their needs,” she said. “That encouraged me to go back to graduate school to look at the issue from 35,000 feet. I came to realize that going back into the field wouldn’t help resolve those issues on a larger scale. I needed to design and implement research studies that further investigated these challenges in order to have a measurable impact.” 

Seeing the value of nonprofits in society

Oelberger’s work is especially relevant to current societal challenges, said Associate Professor Kathy Quick, who nominated her for the award. 

“Dr. Oelberger’s groundbreaking research in these areas generates new knowledge about how to better support people in our society to thrive in their work and other aspects of their lives,” Quick said. “She is also skillful at translating those findings into well-informed, practical advice to nonprofit and government leaders,” who then act on her recommendations. 

Oelberger describes her work as “long-game” research, where she collects data over many years to “deeply understand the complex processes that are happening in these spaces” over time. And she’s grateful for the support she receives from the University and the Humphrey School. 

“The Humphrey School values the role of nonprofits in society as a crucial component of public affairs and it places a high value on qualitative inquiry,” she said. “It’s a perfect fit for who I am and the type of research I do.”

In addition to her research activities, Oelberger has “an outstanding record in teaching, advising, and curriculum development,” Quick noted; she has twice received the School’s Best Instructor of the Year award, which is voted on by students. 

Oelberger is one of 10 University faculty members to receive the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship this year. 

Other Humphrey School recipients of the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship are Associate Professor Gabe Chan in 2019, Professor Yingling Fan in 2012, and Professor Elizabeth Wilson in 2008. Wilson now teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth University.