SPEN brings a unique sociological perspective to the study of nonprofit management. This research seeks to equip nonprofit and foundation leaders with a better understanding of the characteristics and behaviors of nonprofit organizations and to inform decision making within and about the sector. It does so by examining the leadership, governance, financing, and external relations of a large random sample of San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit organizations (NPOs) over a 15-year period, 2000-2015, and provides evidence-based insights on such questions as:
- effectiveness and ramifications of business-like practices in the sector,
- effect of technological changes and social media on NPOs’ ability to connect with their constituencies,
- implementation of openness and transparency initiatives throughout the sector,
- impact of nonprofits on the health of urban communities.
This research approach is built on the belief that change does not originate in boardrooms. Decades of organizational research teaches us that most organizational transformation can be explained by dynamics external to individual organizations. Network ties, professional norms, as well as emergent status hierarchies and coalitions permeate formal boundaries and alter organizational activities. Thus, rather than study only the efforts within any single organization, SPEN widens its lens toward inter-organizational dynamics to map trends within the sector. To do this, it builds on existing research on 200 Bay Area nonprofits to also study the 547 grantmaking foundations that have provided them with funding over the last 15 years.
The project combines cutting-edge qualitative and quantitative methodologies to provide deep insights into a representative sample of NPOs in the San Francisco Bay Area. SPEN provides a strong data base for studying the trends and challenges of nonprofit management and practice. Much of the extant evidence comes from qualitative case studies of special cases or thin survey data of large, non-responsive populations of organizations. Similarly, randomized controlled trials have been primarily effective for the evaluation of specific programs. The SPEN project, in contrast, provides in-depth knowledge of 200 randomly sampled nonprofit organizations, their leadership and staff, and their management practices over a period of 15 years. Additionally, this sample is longitudinal, and involve repeated observations that allow researchers to explore organizational practices as dynamic, rather than static, phenomenon. Such data enable analysis of trends, how ideas are put into practice, and how current and prior relationships with other organizations influence organization-level events. Without longitudinal data, one cannot sufficiently explain the processes through which ideas take root. Without understanding these processes, guiding the field toward effective practices is difficult.
This approach observes changes in both society and organizational structures and how they might influence NPOs. It looks beyond impact at a program level, and provides field level, organizational level, and programmatic/managerial/individual level insights, analyzing the linkages between these three perspectives. Instead of simply studying a single organization or program’s social impact, SPEN delves into how impact may be understood and operationalized across different organizations and how external factors might account for variations in the effectiveness of these organizations. It examines the effects of different trends on the nonprofit sector, providing insights on how contemporary demands influence NPOs in both intended and unintended ways. One key strength of SPEN is the detailed knowledge of inter-organizational relationships between nonprofits and foundations, such as through funding, direct collaboration, or shared communication. This positions the SPEN project team uniquely to bring to bear robust evidence on the central questions of nonprofit practitioners and funders. These questions include the relationship between technological transformation and organizational scaling and resilience, the prevalence and diffusion of openness and transparency among foundations and nonprofit organizations, and the causes and consequences of administrative tools adopted from the business sector.
The current sample fully represents the diversity of the nonprofit sector. Rather than cherry-picking particular organizations from which to make inferences, this sample was created by first randomly selecting 200 nonprofit organizations from the Bay Area’s population of over 9,000 501(c)(3) public charities, and then compiling a list of all foundations that have awarded grants to these nonprofits. Thus the full dataset consists of 200 nonprofit organizations and 547 foundations that made 4,580 grants to these NPOs, between the years 2000 and 2015, exceeding $240,000,000 in total funding. The heterogeneity of both the foundations and nonprofits in this sample must be emphasized. The 547 foundations have assets ranging from $300,000 to $9 billion, vary in regard to internal staffs, and include community, family, independent, and company-sponsored foundations. Several of these are recognized as time-honored players in the philanthropic sector, some are well-known locally, and some receive little public attention despite being active grant makers. Twenty-eight of the foundations have awarded at least 25 grants to nonprofits in the sample. The 200 nonprofit grantees range in annual expenditures from $10,000 to $291,000,000 and work in areas as diverse as the environment, arts, education, health, human services, and religion. This sample allows us to make more general conclusions about how inter-organizational relations influence practices within these organizations.
SPEN is looking to expand its scope temporally and geographically. The first proposed extension is to include “digitally native” organizations born in the past ten years in the S.F. Bay Area sample to better understand the challenges of having to adapt to the digital age. The second is a comparative analysis of the nonprofit sectors in urban agglomerations of comparable size and governance structures around the globe. Both extensions would dramatically broaden the implications of this research.
There are three components to the success of this research methodology:
- careful scientific analysis that results in work that is verifiable and generalizable,
- research outputs that provide practitioners with both a landscape portrait and a direct analysis at the individual organizational level and a field-level perspective, and
- insights that will both assist improvements in practice and set the pace for other scholarly inquiry in this area.
SPEN is led by Woody Powell, Professor of Education (and) Sociology, Organizational Behavior, and Management Science and Engineering, Public Policy and Communication, and Faculty co-director of Stanford PACS. Professor Powell is internationally known for his work in organization theory, economic sociology, and the sociology of science. SPEN is informed by his current research on the processes through which knowledge is transferred across organizations, the role of networks in facilitating or hindering innovation, and the role of institutions in codifying ideas. Since 2000 Professor Powell has been a board member of the Social Science Research Council, the leading funder of social science research in the world. He is also a founding advisory board member of the new Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics.
Professor Powell is partnering with Aaron Horvath and Christof Brandtner, PhD candidates in the Department of Sociology. Christof is a former PACS PhD fellow (2013-14) and Aaron has been a PACS PhD fellow in 2015-16 and will continue as a fellow for 2016-17. Both Aaron and Christof are highly trained in various research methods including network analysis, text analysis, econometrics, and qualitative research techniques. They have utilized these skills in a variety of research contexts. They have collaborated with Professor Powell on SPEN for the last three years, exploring (1) how nonprofit organizations take on more open orientations, (2) how these organizations weathered the financial crisis, and (3) how they have developed an online presence since the turn of the century.