Nonprofit Sector Research Handbook Forum

Nonprofits and the City

Editors’ Note: Claire Dunning and Christof Brandtner introduce their chapter in the new 3rd edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook (Stanford University Press, 2020). Read posts from other contributors to the Handbook, including an introduction to this forum, here.

Look around any city block, and chances are you’ll see a nonprofit organization. The evidence might be staring you in the face—perhaps a nonprofit operates a storefront site that either through rent or ownership enables a visible presence in the urban landscape. The evidence might be less apparent—perhaps a flyer on a streetlamp advertising an afterschool program, a banner overhead promoting a major art exhibit, a community park with a donor roll plaque posted at the entrance, or a “for rent” sign announcing the completion of new affordable housing constructed by a local community development corporation. Then again, the imprint of nonprofits on that urban block might be completely invisible—it is hard to see salaries paid to residents whose jobs are in the nonprofit sector, the research reports newly released from a think tank or university sitting on shelves, or the zoning policies that resulted from a grassroots advocacy campaign.

While the exact patterns might differ whether you observe a city block in a residential or commercial district, in a predominantly wealthy or low-income neighborhood, or in a big city or small one, a general rule applies: nonprofits are pervasive in obvious and subtle ways, and they have direct and indirect consequences for urban areas. In part, our use of an infrastructure metaphor—“Nonprofits as Urban Infrastructure”—to title our chapter in The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook is meant to capture this ubiquitous presence of nonprofits that exists whether obvious or obscured.

That the nonprofit sector is urban makes intuitive sense, but is also confirmed by data we present in our Handbook chapter. In the United States, for example, 80 percent of nonprofits are located in urban areas, and about a third of nonprofit dollars are heavily concentrated in just ten metropolitan regions. These data are not without limitation, as we discuss, including competing definitions of urban. Nonetheless, they give some backing to the observation that while not exclusively, the nonprofit sector is predominantly based in cities.

We also know about the urban-ness of the nonprofit sector from our own research agendas. Trained as a sociologist, Christof Brandtner considers how nonprofit and professional associations spur cities to more proactively address environmental and social challenges; and trained as a historian, Claire Dunning considers the role of nonprofits in urban governance and poverty reduction in the United States during the twentieth century. Fellowships at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society brought our work together and revealed two things in the process: we were asking similar questions and we both lacked a theoretical framework for synthesizing work on cities and nonprofits. We identified this need within our own fields of sociology and history, and in our shared spaces of urban studies and nonprofit studies. The two previous editions of the Handbook lacked a chapter focusing on cities. This latest volume, with our collaborative contribution, seemed an opportunity to create what we had been looking for.

Co-authoring a chapter as two scholars from different disciplines brought practical benefits and, we hope, intellectual ones as well. Most directly, we drew on a wider set of scholarly work and could cover more scholarly ground in the chapter. At a deeper level, however, this process served as a reminder that disciplinary differences are real; historians and sociologists employ different vocabularies and think in different ways that go beyond a focus on the past versus the present. Never have I thought so much about what “mechanisms” are driving a particular change; never has Christof thought so much about the ways political, economic, and social contexts intersect in the longue durée. We hope these come across as productive tensions in the chapter.


A core argument in our chapter is that the relationship between cities and nonprofits is bi-directional: cities shape nonprofits, and nonprofits shape cities. These patterns play out in any given moment but have also unfolded and compounded over time.

This argument derived from our readings in literatures on cities and nonprofits. We recognized that while these scholarly traditions tread similar ground, they too often speak past each other. (There are, of course, exceptions, and sociologists such as Nicole Marwell, Michael McQuarrie, and Jeremy Levine, and historians Alice O’Connor and Karen Ferguson immediately come to mind). Put another way, nonprofit organizations—whether universities, social service entities, homeowner associations, or community developers—often appear in classic texts on cities and urban politics, urban economies, and urban social dynamics. This presence, however, is often flat, with analytical attention only payed to the nuances of what makes a city, as if the organizational entities in its midst were not themselves also actors pursuing agendas or subject to constraints and biases that shape the social, political, and economic environment of cities. The reverse is true as well. Literature on nonprofits with both quantitative and qualitative methods often draw on entities based in or serving urban areas without taking seriously how the urban context shapes the entities in their midst. Our goals for the chapter then became two-fold: linking not just work by historians and sociologists, but those working on cities and those on nonprofits.

To push past these bifurcations and capture the insights on each side, the chapter summarizes the literatures in the following ways: On the one hand, cities shape nonprofits through shared demography, polity and law; cultural norms of giving; demand and supply; competition and collaboration; and practice spillovers. On the other hand, nonprofits shape the urban sites they occupy as forges of civic capacity; participants in urban governance; conveners of economic networks; anchors of identity; and builders of physical environments. These roles that nonprofit organizations play in cities and the mechanisms by which they shape their environments are linked and overlapping, processes that play out in a variety of combinations and consequences over time.

Another thought exercise might help: consider a homeless shelter. The organization’s immediate purpose is to provide emergency shelter for those in need, but it also engages volunteers, occupies physical space on a city block, and contracts with the government or local funders. Consider too a large NGO headquartered in New York, whose services are targeted elsewhere but which nonetheless shapes the city around it through the salaries it pays, the convenings it hosts, the research it promotes, the advocacy it engages in, and the fundraisers it throws. On first glance, these two nonprofits share little, but upon closer inspection are regulated by the same laws and customs, may target the same elite donors, interface with the same government, and suffer from a tight real estate market. Both shape and are shaped by the cultural, economic, social, and political dimensions of the city, and have done so past in ways that shape the present.

Moving from a survey of the field toward the production of a theoretical framework for understanding the urban nonprofit sector pitted a historian’s embrace of context against a sociologist’s desire for a model. This tension resulted in a model in our chapter that is dynamic, in order to reflect core concepts from history that relationships and institutions change over time, and from sociology that relationships between things repeat in ways that can be categorized. This is the where we capture in visual form nonprofits and cities not only as mutually constitutive, but also as co-evolving.

As we note in the chapter, this is, we hope, just the start of some more direct research on cities and nonprofits. Recognizing the nonprofit sector as predominantly urban is a start; a model outlining a series of relationships between cities and nonprofits is another step forward. Sharpening this understanding remains important, as a model cannot predict the nuances of why and how different places or different subsectors of nonprofits might differ. We hope a strong trend moving forward is comparative work: to what extent is New York’s nonprofit sector more similar to London’s or Cape Town’s and to what extent is it more similar to Tallahassee’s, Detroit’s, or San Diego’s? Why and when have such divergences taken place? We will be wrestling with these questions in our own work, and hope others do as well.


It is worth noting that while the city-nonprofit relationship poses an interesting analytical puzzle, it is also a pressing one. Cities are sites of some of our greatest challenges and capacities for solutions. In the chapter, we describe cities as places facing rising economic inequality, persistent racial segregation, global migration and displacement, and increasing climate threats. If we were writing the chapter now, in 2020, we would no doubt include global pandemics, as the COVID-19 crisis is wrecking particular havoc in cities and cities have been among the first to embrace drastic measures to contain the outbreak of disease. We are seeing hospitals stretched far beyond their carrying capacities, the vulnerabilities of people who are unhoused, lost revenues in the arts, and food insecurity of children and families. At the same time, cities are hubs of innovation, creativity, mobilization, and resources that are applied to these pressing challenges. They are places where people come together to formulate, demand, and implement solutions. This, again, is true in a time of novel pathogens. Community groups are developing informal care networks to deliver groceries, donations of dollars, food, and supplies and are supporting nonprofits on the front lines, and labor groups are demanding safety and protections. We need to better understand these relationships in times of relative normalcy and in times of crisis so that we know which levers to pull in the face of some overwhelming odds.

-Claire Dunning and Christof Brandtner

Claire Dunning is a historian and an assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is writing a book on the role of nonprofits in American cities from urban renewal to the present. Christof Brandtner is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Sociology and the Mansueto Institute of Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago. He studies the causes and consequences of social and environmental change in the city through an organizational lens.

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