Nonprofit Management Trailblazer Sharon Oster Dies

Sharon Oster, an economist and an early researcher on nonprofit organizations, died from Lung cancer on June 10 at her home in New Haven, Conn. She was 74.

Oster was one of the early members of Yale University’s School of Organization and Management (the name later shortened to the School of Management or SOM), was the first woman tenured in that school and later she became dean. Oster was one of the original members of the Program on Nonprofit Organizations (PONPO) at Yale and was among a group of economists who laid out basic concepts of how nonprofit organizations are structured.

The university website reported that Oster “stepped up to become the school’s dean under tumultuous circumstances in 2008, just as the global financial crisis was hitting its peak. She took decisive steps to keep the school moving forward, making necessary financial cutbacks while focusing energy and resources on critical student-facing functions, including the ongoing development of the then-fledgling MBA integrated curriculum.”

During her tenure, SOM broke ground on the construction of Edward P. Evans Hall, laying a literal and figurative foundation for the school’s growth and increasing influence in subsequent years, according to information posted by the university.

Yale SOM’s current dean, Kerwin K. Charles, was quoted on the university’s website as Oster’s leadership having a long-lasting impact. “Sharon is esteemed and beloved throughout the SOM family for many reasons — her insightful scholarship, her generous mentorship, her exacting standards,” he was quoted as saying.” Throughout her years at SOM, we profited hugely from the presence of her steady hand, as she guided the school towards more fully executing upon its mission. Her masterful management as dean is but one example. This institution is unimaginable without her imprint. Her enormous influence on so many aspects of life at the school is why her loss hits so hard and touches so many.”

Oster’s work focused on organizational strategy. As a professor at the SOM, Oster broadened the field of strategy so it included analysis of nonprofit organizations. Her book, Strategic Management for Nonprofit Organizations has become a classic used in many courses on nonprofit organizations emphasizing as it does case examples combined with a rigorous analytic framework.

As a person who helped to develop the field of management at Yale, she showed a keen sensitivity for the interpersonal dynamics and subtlety of organizational life, which are central aspects of management as a field of study. In Management for Nonprofit Organizations, for example, she gave a case example of a Hmong community organization that not only captured the fluidity and lack of structure that we find in many small organizations. She also explored ways Hmong culture and the history of an embattled ethnic group shaped the way local residents think about and build organizations. This was one of the first explorations we have of how cultural and historical characteristics of minorities must shape and alter our understanding of how organizations are structured.  Her work guided us in exploring unique qualities of African American and Latino nonprofit organizations.

Although Yale’s PONPO was trailblazing, that institution has a commitment to investing in innovative programs but then letting them end after 10 or 20 years of activity. PONPO was moved to the Divinity School in 1998 and then to the School of Management in 2002, where Oster served as its director. In that capacity, she worked to keep an important archive of nonprofit scholarship available in the form of the PONPO Working Papers, although a complete collection of those papers ultimately could not be maintained. Nonetheless, Oster was a helpful collaborator with those of us who tried to assemble early working paper series of the major research centers.

Some of Oster’s important publications are: Modern Competitive analysis (1990), Strategic management for nonprofit organizations: Theory and cases. (1995). “Nonprofit organizations as franchise operations.” (1992),  “Is there a dark side to endowment growth?” (2003), “Does the structure and composition of the board matter?” (2005) with K. O’Regan, and “Product diversification and social enterprise” (2010).

She married Ray C. Fair, another member of the Yale Economics Department in 1977 and the couple had three children, two boys and a girl.

According to the university’s announcement of her death: “Sharon Oster arrived at Yale in 1974 after completing her Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University, already the author of multiple published papers. She initially taught in the Department of Economics and moved to Yale SOM (then the Yale School of Organization and Management) in 1982. She received tenure in 1983 and was named the Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Economics and Management in 1992. In her early years at the school, she taught microeconomics and competitive strategy; her demanding and enriching approach turned both courses into student favorites. Later, she developed a course on nonprofit strategy in response to student demand, and it became a keystone experience for generations of Yale SOM students; its lessons are still applied every day in boardrooms and nonprofit offices around the globe. Oster noted in a 2017 interview that the course also opened new veins of research for her and led to the publication of her widely used textbook Strategic Management of Nonprofit Organizations: Theory and Cases.”

Oster’s family asks that you consider a donation to Achievement First. Sharon Oster cared deeply about education and not only dedicated her career to teaching but was also passionate about providing high-quality educational opportunities to everyone, regardless of means.


Carl Milofsky is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Bucknell University. The column was edited by staff of The NonProfit Times, with additional information from Yale University. Additional information can be found here: https://som.yale.edu/story/2022/sharon-oster-1948-2022