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Civic Life of Cities Lab

We are thinking of our global community as we grapple with both the spread of COVID-19 worldwide and the ongoing fight against racial injustice. We are grateful and humbled to be part of a community that is making extraordinary efforts to support civic life and all of its beneficiaries during these challenging times. Thank you for all that you do. As a research center dedicated to producing and sharing knowledge to strengthen civil society, we are undertaking a series of activities that we hope will contribute to better awareness and action to combat these crises. Our work on these crises can be found here.

The Civic Life of Cities Lab explores how nonprofit organizations contribute to their local communities 

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 seven 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, Vienna, Austria and Singapore.  

Our comparative research seeks to provide insights into questions that are central to associational life:

  • What value do nonprofit organizations bring to their communities, beyond the much needed goods or services they provide for constituents?
  • How do local spatial and political contexts influence the vitality of associational life?
  • How does the adoption of practices from other sectors alter the character of nonprofit work?
  • How does technology change the way nonprofit organizations connect with and serve their constituents?


Our approach is steeped in interdisciplinary scholarship

Our reach beyond traditional disciplines of the academy 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 our research methodology and corresponding data accessible through 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. 


Our Approach


From climate change to civic culture, cities concentrate and amplify how the defining issues of our times are experienced. These encounters 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. Given 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 on how  nonprofit organizations are in working together and solving problems jointly.


Our work expands the current frontiers of data collection and analysis, combining methodologies from sociology, political science, 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 explore the intersection of research and practice for associational life.

Our 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-depth 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. Our 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, blogs, editorials, open data sets, interactive maps, and videos provide ready access to how we think about civic life. We hope to make these complex issues, comprehensible and useful for both the nonprofit practitioners and other scholars studying the sector and, more broadly, the role of organizations in their communities.