Faculty Spotlight

February Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor, Cristina M. Balboa


Warm congratulations to Cristina Balboa, who in the past year was appointed as Director of the Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management; came out with a new book, The Paradox of Scale: How NGOs Build, Maintain, and Lose Authority in Environmental Governance. We speak to her about her research, the resulting book, and her plans for the Center.

You were recently appointed as Director of the Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management. How do you see the Marxe School as being an asset to the nonprofit sector of New York City and beyond?
It’s a privilege to lead this center at a school that shares so many parallels and synergies with the nonprofit sector. 70% of Baruch’s students are people of color, 34% are the first in their family to attend college, and they speak about 111 different languages in their homes. And when our undergrads graduate, almost 84% of them do so without any federal loans. Baruch has always been a diverse community and an engine for social mobility and it seems the academic rankings are starting to understand how important that is because we’ve been named #1 in social mobility for the fifth year in a row.

These stats represent why many of us are proud to work here, and they are also why many of us started working in or studying the nonprofit sector. We want our work to help transform the social and power dynamics of our communities so that those groups that have been historically marginalized are centered in decision-making and policy, and so that the services and programs nonprofits promote make durable improvements in the lives of those we serve. I think this is a unique and important relationship: the Marxe School as an engine for social mobility working to help the nonprofit sector as the engine for social change. From the students we prepare to lead nonprofit organizations, to our alumni who are already leading the sector and can help drive our programming, to our research which is inspired by the sector’s needs and experience, I think the Marxe School’s Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management is uniquely poised to amplify the impact of our partners and the sector in general.

Tell us about your goals for the Center, both from high-level and more granular perspectives.
I’ve spent the last several months listening to our faculty, our students, and our partners in the nonprofit and philanthropy sector about their interests and ideas for the center and how we might all work together. These conversations are inspiring, and it helps to categorize what I’ve learned so far into “the what” and “the how”.

For “the what”, I see three different streams emerging. First, our center has always been strong in examining the relationships between government, nonprofits, and business – from government contracting of social services, to the tradeoffs between these different organizational types, and the learning that happens cross-sector. That won’t change. But also (and because of research here at the center) we know that NYC is the home of more international nonprofits than any other U.S. city. With several Marxe faculty who focus on international NGOs and the global orientation of our school, there’s a great opportunity to partner with sector as our second issue area. Third, because of who we are a Baruch, there’s an incredible opportunity to support the nonprofit community that centers marginalized communities, and that are committed to have their leadership and boards reflect the diversity of the city. I think these three issue areas are where we can contribute the most.

As for “the how”, I’m happy to hear from partners that we are an academic center that does impeccable research. I want us to connect with organizations to determine what research they need to help their work, and to get our research out in formats that are more accessible for practitioners. I would also like to see Marxe as a gathering place for learning networks– for organizations serving marginalized communities, for scholars working on the same priority issues, for alumni and new leaders who do transformative work. We can create space for these groups to learn from each other, while growing our partnerships so that the questions, concerns, and ideas of these nonprofit networks truly drive our research, and our research amplifies the work of the nonprofit sector. It’s really exciting to be at this stage of the planning process and hope the broader nonprofit community will join us as we build our path for the immediate and long-term future.

Congratulations on your new book The Paradox of Scale: How NGOs Build, Maintain, and Lose Authority in Environmental Governance. Tell us about the research it was written from. What do you hope the book accomplishes?
All the research that I do on environmental nongovernmental organizations is an effort to help the environmental movement move more effectively and equitably. The questions in this book were planted when I worked in environmental NGOs at the beginning of my career. I kept seeing successful NGOs try to scale up their efforts and then face criticism about their effectiveness or their accountability, or just end the programs altogether. So, I studied in-depth three NGOs as they attempted to scale up their efforts in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Palau and found this paradox: that the same capacity and accountability practices that make an NGO successful in one location will actually hurt its effectiveness in another. I think the book offers a helpful framework on how capacity and accountability change across scales, as well as ways NGOs – and the broader field – can bridge scales to manage these differences and achieve durable change.

I’ve been working with some large environmental NGOs on how to implement the lessons learned, and it’s been fascinating to see how the cases and frameworks confirm the experience of so many people working in the field. The feedback indicates that the case studies paint an accurate picture of the daily experience and struggles of international NGOs, and several universities use the book in their courses. And it has been gratifying to video-conference with students and practitioners around the globe who see their experience reflected in the book, and are eager to avoid this paradox in their own work.