Across the world, nonprofit organizations are part of the social fabric. They cultivate creative expression, spur support for environmental preservation, provide a safe sanctuary to live, care for the sick, build recreational spaces – their work is embedded into daily life. NPOs serve as mirrors to their communities, revealing the needs and priorities of their local constituents. At the Civic Life of Cities, we explore relationships between nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and their communities, creating a framework that helps us understand how NPOs tackle challenges, search for solutions, and address global issues at a local level.
Our Civic Life of Cities work grew out of the Stanford Project on the Evolution of Nonprofits (SPEN) which studied 200 randomly sampled NPOs from the San Francisco Bay Area over the course of nearly two decades. The SPEN research team studied how nonprofits do their work, the legal and cultural contexts in which they operate, and how they engage with one another, as well as the public, to achieve shared goals. This lens has now been extended to six metropolitan regions across the globe: the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle (the Puget Sound Region, including Tacoma and Olympia), Shenzhen, China, Sydney, Australia, Taipei, Taiwan and Vienna, Austria.
This comparative research seeks to provide insights to important questions that have previously gone unasked and unanswered about the nonprofit sector:
Our reach beyond traditional areas of academic inquiry provides a resource for scholars and practitioners alike to understand changes and transformations in the nonprofit sector, spanning both time and place. We aim to make the research methodology and corresponding data accessible through civiclifeofcities.org with the intention that other scholars undertake similar studies of the nonprofit sector in cities across the globe. We also actively share findings with nonprofits, funders, and others who care for the health of civil society in cities around the world.
From climate change to culture, cities concentrate and amplify how the most pressing issues of our times are experienced. These experiences lead civil society organizations to engage with local governments to find collective solutions and spark innovation and prosperity along the way. Cities sign multilateral treaties to reduce carbon emissions and collaborate with other cities to learn about sustainability solutions. City governments attempt to handle refugee crises and become sanctuary cities, even when their national states are inhospitable. Considering the important role that cities play in shaping the social sector, too little analysis has been done on the civic life of cities. We conduct comparative cross-city research to shed light about how effective nonprofit organizations actually are in working together and solving problems jointly.
Our work expands the current frontiers of data collection and analysis in the field, combining methodologies from sociology, management, and urban studies to examine, compare and contrast the experiences of nonprofit sectors in different cultural, political, and geographical environments. The global research team employs a comprehensive approach using qualitative and quantitative techniques to find the intersection of research and practice for associational life.
The team selects random samples from the administrative records of the nonprofit sector in each city to accurately reflect the diversity of the sector, and administers a single survey in multiple languages, with common modules on leadership, staffing, decision making, collaboration, advocacy, funding, impact, performance, digital practices, and community integration. Our researchers interview nonprofit leaders in order to build a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of each organization’s work.
One of our key objectives is to inform both scholars and practitioners in the field. The research team strives to be transparent through sharing what we find in real-time so that our work does not sit on a shelf. Resources in the form of academic papers, open data sets, interactive maps, and videos provide context for how we think about civic life. We hope to make these complex issues, comprehensible and useful for the day-to-day work of nonprofit practitioners and other scholars studying the sector and, more broadly, the role of organizations in their communities.