New Works in the Field

Inequality and Organizational Vitality: A History of Nonprofit Neighborhoods and the American State

Editors’ Note: Claire Dunning introduces her new book, Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (University of Chicago, 2022).

I first encountered the puzzle that inspired my recent book, Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State, at a meeting I attended while working at The Boston Foundation between college and graduate school. It was a meeting convened by prominent elder statesmen of the local nonprofit community and attended by representatives of local foundations and city government to hear a presentation by Tufts professor James Jennings about Boston’s neighborhoods, inequality, and nonprofits.

Jennings shared a series of maps that have fascinated me ever since—so much so that I write about them in the last chapter of my book. They gave spatial location to both what he called “neighborhood distress” and nonprofit organizations, demonstrating how the areas of highest distress were those which were home to the city’s Black and Latinx populations and to significant numbers of nonprofit organizations. Those attending the meeting, understandably, focused their conversation on what kinds of investments or strategies could help bolster nonprofit capacity to address the longstanding inequality already familiar to those around the table. To me, however, the maps begged a historical question about how these overall patterns of residential segregation and organizational concentration coexisted and persisted.

I share that anecdote because, first, I am always interested in why people study what they do, and second, because it highlights that the origins of this academic book are rooted in the realm of practice. As a historian who teaches at a public policy school, my professional work involves connecting past to present and theory to practice. The HistPhil community, to me, embodies those dynamics too in promoting knowledge that is useful and meaningful.

Nonprofit Neighborhoods reflects my interest in big questions of whether nonprofit organizations can and should address inequality in U.S. cities. With the book, I wanted to understand why, in the United States, we so heavily rely on small associational entities to solve big problems, and private nonprofits to address public issues. Exploring those tensions required looking to the past in the decades before nonprofits played the prominent role in urban governance that they do today, and zooming out to consider the funding relationships, policy choices, and power dynamics that structurally linked nonprofits to government and focused their work on issues of urban poverty.


The questions at the heart of Nonprofit Neighborhoods might have begun as a personal puzzle but soon became research questions informed by literatures on cities, nonprofit organizations, and poverty policy in the past and present. Despite their individual strengths, however, these areas have remained too separate. On balance, the literature on nonprofit organizations and what some call the “nonprofit industrial complex” lacked a temporal and spatial grounding in the segregated neighborhoods of U.S. postwar cities, while the literature on urban and political history had mostly overlooked a set of grantmaking practices and policy choices central to the American welfare state that funneled public funding to neighborhood nonprofits.

Boston, it turned out, was an ideal place to study these dynamics. At a practical level I was living and studying in the area, which gave me regular access to the rich collection of papers in Northeastern University’s Archive and Special Collection. The archivists there have a strong commitment to preserving the records of area organizations, particularly those in Boston’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods and working on issues of social justice. I read through annual reports and meeting minutes, client and staff surveys, funding requests both awarded and denied, correspondence, newsletters, and budgets to trace how these neighborhood entities were funded and how that funding shaped their anti-poverty activities. Whenever possible I tried to then pair these (and other) organizational records with those archived by their government and foundation funders to recover multiple sides of a funding relationship.

More importantly, the challenges Boston faced in the postwar era were shared by other U.S. cities also undergoing significant demographic and political-economic shifts. A sense of so-called urban crisis gripped Boston and other cities like it, raising questions about the future of cities in an era of deindustrialization and suburbanization when large majorities of those with the economic and racial privilege of choice moved beyond municipal borders. In response, the federal government offered funding and powers to municipalities to redraw streets, economies, and neighborhoods through a program for urban renewal. That story of displacement is well known, embodied visually in Boston with the razing of the West End neighborhood and the erasure of the New York Streets neighborhood from city maps. Yet, in this familiar story I found the origins of an unfamiliar one: embedded in urban renewal lay a government grantmaking program that encouraged city renewal agencies to partner with neighborhood nonprofit entities in redevelopment planning. Given the protests against urban renewal, the financial resources to make grants to community organizations proved rather appealing as a means of satisfying both federal requirements and local demands for participation.

If Boston stood among its peers in fearing an urban crisis and grasping for federal renewal funds to mitigate it, the city soon diverged from other municipalities in ways equally important to the story I tell in Nonprofit Neighborhoods. Boston had – and to many still maintains—a reputation as a liberal city given its ties to Democratic politics, as well as a reputation as a city with entrenched racism, exclusion, and discrimination. These two characteristics of the city, as well as its claim to prestigious universities and hospitals, enhanced funding applications to both government and foundation grantors, positioning Boston as an early recipient of funding related to urban renewal and later the War on Poverty, Model Cities, and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. Put more simply, eyes were on Boston as it became, once again, a “city on the hill,” experimenting with new forms of urban governance increasingly privatized, financialized, and decentralized. Grant-funded, nonprofit-provided service provision became a preferred means of public problem solving in areas ranging from arts to parks, and health to housing. Attendees at the American Society of Planning annual conference, for example, toured nonprofit Freedom House in 1964 to learn about its partnership with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to facilitate renewal in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Washington Park. And in the 1980s, London officials modeled their Docklands Compact, which some have labeled as a quintessentially neoliberal program, on the Boston Compact for urban education that tied business boosters to the city’s public schools. Such accolades compounded over time, positioning Boston as both the vanguard of a new approach to urban governance and a bellwether of what such approaches could—and could not—achieve.

Though the goals, form, size, and arrangements of funding partnerships between government and nonprofits would change, sometimes drastically, over the following decades, this moment of experimentation under urban renewal inaugurated what I identify as a profound shift in the American state. With the help and imprimatur of government grants, the rights of urban residents to participate in governance and to access goods and services increasingly flowed through neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations. This policy choice, made repeatedly and often enthusiastically by both liberals and conservatives, rendered certain democratic rights subject to the competition, surveillance, regulation, and standardization inherent in grantmaking. It also produced a state simultaneously more present in the affairs of private organizations and the lives of individuals, and more hidden behind reams of grant applications, reports, budgets, and audits; as well as one more responsive to the preferences of different constituencies and more insulated from structural change.


In writing Nonprofit Neighborhoods I took great care to neither malign nor romanticize the work that neighborhood-based nonprofits performed in Boston and cities like it over the twentieth century. I ask readers to do the same. Government funding of nonprofits produced a wide range of important, and at times life-changing goods and services while, simultaneously, also proved to be inadequate to meet the needs of those routinely marginalized, excluded, or discriminated against. There is room, I hope, to appreciate that affordable housing units designed by a local community nonprofit could shelter families, and that such construction did little to remedy the toxic mix of rising rents, declining wages, and crumbling housing stock; just as tutoring programs could increase math scores and graduation rates without ensuring a sufficiently funded school district. Nonprofits can do the former, and often do so quite well, but it takes actual policy and public provision to do the latter—things that even the most efficiently, effectively, and innovatively run nonprofit simply cannot provide despite what funders hope and nonprofits promise.

Rather than evaluate individual organizations, the book’s arguments instead center on the broader policy and political environment in which neighborhood nonprofits operated during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Government funding and the partnerships with nonprofits it cemented were intricately connected to freedom movements in the twentieth century, as activists demanded a voice and a slice of public funding to improve their neighborhoods in their own vision, and as the extension of a grant or loan became a popular tool for those in power to share degrees of it in ways both meaningful and limited. The grant programs I trace enabled, simultaneously, new forms of inclusion and exclusion in urban governance that increased representation, participation, and decision-making for Black and Latinx residents, while channeling those democratic rights through private, often precariously financed, nonprofit entities that remained reliant on external grants. As neighborhood nonprofits chased new funding opportunities and promoted their activities, they helped fuel, even if unwittingly, a political narrative about the failures of government provision, the preference for private delivery, and the promise of market-oriented programs that began to turn neoliberal tenets into governing realities.  

Decades of persistent effort, creative new approaches to funding and services, dedication to community improvement, and demands for inclusion have largely reproduced inequalities already present at mid-century. To me, this is a sobering and at times uncomfortable finding, but one that shifts conversation from how individual organizations might improve outcomes to the power dynamics, policy designs, political choices, racial logics, and funding allocations that undergird these new patterns of governance and fundamentally constrain their potential impact.


I’ll close where I began, which is with the people who work in neighborhood organizations to improve the lives and communities of those around them. Nonprofit leaders, staff members, and volunteers know the realities of what I chronicle in Nonprofit Neighborhoods, as do, of course, those who live in poverty and depend upon nonprofit goods and services. I am hardly the first to point out the limitations of term-limited grants, to recognize the centrality of policy and public provision to upending structural inequalities, or to celebrate nonprofit programs while knowing them to be insufficient. Grassroots groups have been leveling similar concerns about both the importance and inadequacy of nonprofit activity since the 1950s, but those dependent on grant funding had reason to be careful in criticizing those keeping them afloat. For all the talk of partnership, these grantmaking relationships have not been ones among equals. Instead, they were arrangements designed, I argue, to maintain funder flexibility and grantee precarity, and to appease not empower. My hope then is that with the relative security and reputational authority of academic research, Nonprofit Neighborhoods helps shine a light on this broader system of funding, power, and partnership that characterizes urban governance in the twenty-first century and, ultimately, will dictate its future.

-Claire Dunning

Claire Dunning is an assistant professor of policy and history at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (University of Chicago Press, 2022). Her work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, Enterprise & Society, and Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. Dunning holds a PhD in History from Harvard University and was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

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