Civic Life of Cities Lab

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 We explore how nonprofit organizations contribute to their local communities.

The Civic Life of Cities Lab has studied the San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit sector for nearly two decades learning how and why nonprofits do their work, the legal and cultural contexts in which they thrive, and how these organizations interact with one another to achieve shared interests. This original work with the Stanford Project Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector (SPEN) provided knowledge about the behaviors and attributes of 200 randomly sampled nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area organizations.

Today, our research expands topically and geographically to six cities across the globe, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle (the Puget Sound Region, including Tacoma and Olympia), Shenzhen, China, Sydney, Australia, Taipei, Taiwan and Vienna, Austria. Our goal is to understand how civil society organizations share similarities and differ across cities and nations.

Our researchers combine perspectives from public policy, sociology, management and urban studies to examine the nonprofit sector.

The research team asks questions of the  different socio-economic environments that nonprofit organizations operate in and the consequences of associational life for building robust communities. Country comparisons are common in the social sector, but few provide side-by-side comparisons of cities and the organizations that these cities are built upon.

This work aims to serve as a longstanding resource for scholars and academics to understand changes and transformations in the nonprofit sector, spanning both time and place. The research methodology and corresponding data will be accessible through with the intention that other scholars undertake similar studies of the nonprofit sector in cities across the globe. We strive to 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 immigration, cities are where citizens experience global issues most personally. Over half of the world’s population lives in an urban environment, with more and more people calling cities their home in the next decade. These experiences lead civil society organizations to engage with local governments to find collective solutions and spark innovation along the way. Considering the important role cities play in shaping the social sector, little is known about the civic life of cities. We conduct comparative cross-city research to shed light about how effective nonprofit organizations, as a collective, are in working together and solving problems jointly.


The interdisciplinary global research team employs a comprehensive approach in studying the six cities and the organizations in them by using qualitative and quantitative techniques. The team draws representative random samples from tax records of the nonprofit sector in each city, and administers a single survey  with common modules on leadership, staffing, decision making, collaboration, advocacy, funding, impact, performance, digital practices, and community integration. Leadership of organizations will also be interviewed to build a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of an organization’s work.


One of our key objectives is to inform and educate scholars and practitioners in this field. We do not want our work to sit on a shelf. The research team strives to be transparent through sharing  what we find real-time, rather than waiting for papers to be written and peer-reviewed before publication. Resources in the form of academic papers, open data sets, interactive maps, and videos provide context to how the team thinks of complex issues, shares our inspiration for this research and creates a foundation for applying findings to the day-to-day work of nonprofit practitioners.