Resilient but Frayed: The Civic Threads of the Puget Sound Nonprofit Sector

Diverse national and cross-national studies have documented “nonprofit sector effects”—demonstrating that aggregate measures of the size and scope of the nonprofit sector (e.g., density, total number, total linkages) in a community have a substantively meaningful influence on outcomes such as violent crime, drug overdoses, happiness, and corporate social responsibility. Why and how does the nonprofit sector in a community produce such effects? Extant studies offer several plausible arguments for why they expect the nonprofit sector to matter, positing four key underlying mechanisms or drivers based on nonprofit attributes: managerialism; interorganizational ties; political engagement and advocacy; and civic engagement and community embeddedness. In this article, we seek to contribute to the literature on nonprofit sector effects by presenting a landscape of formal civil society in the Puget Sound, a region of the United States anchored by the city of Seattle. More specifically, we utilize the context of the Puget Sound to explore the underlying drivers that have been invoked to explain aggregate effects. Our findings indicate that nonprofits indeed are critical civic threads in the organizational tapestry of the Puget Sound. Inequality and social problems nevertheless have accompanied economic growth in recent decades, and these factors are fraying those civic threads and straining the capacity of the nonprofit sector. Although we conclude that the nonprofit sector could generate aggregate effects in the Puget Sound, to some extent the region constitutes an extreme case for addressing the drivers, as the area has a reputation for its vibrant associational life and for its highly educated and politically engaged populace. Comparative analyses consequently will be essential for assessing the distinctiveness of the region and for explaining how different configurations of drivers in local contexts shape nonprofit sector effects.