Civic Life of Cities Lab


The Civic Life of Cities Lab (CLCL) grew out of the Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector (SPEN). The original work with SPEN provided in-depth knowledge of 200 randomly sampled nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area organizations over a period of 15 years. The Civic Life of Cities Lab expands to five cities across the globe– the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle (the Puget Sound Region, including Tacoma and Olympia), Shenzhen, China, Sydney, Australia, and Vienna, Austria. Our goal with CLCL is to understand how civil society organizations differ across cities and nations. 

Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector (SPEN)

A photo of the the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge.  The Bay Bridge supports nearly 260,000 vehicles a day, connecting commuters across various communities along the Bay area. 

SPEN looked at 200 randomly sampled nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area organizations over a period of 15 years. The sample was drawn back in 2000 from the full population of 10,000+ 501(c)(3) public charities in the ten county San Francisco Bay Area region. By 2015, 176 of the organizations were still active as nonprofits, and a handful morphed into for-profit organizations, foundations, or public agencies, merged with another nonprofit, or became part of national federations.

SPEN analyzed the leadership, staffing, and management practices of organizations, with repeated observations that included interviews, financial data, and analysis of webpages and annual reports. The longitudinal data allowed the team to analyze the dynamics of organizational practices, how ideas were put into use and to what effect, and how relationships with other organizations influenced the behavior of nonprofits.

We use this data to explain the processes through which ideas take root. With detailed analysis of changes over time, SPEN observes which practices have been most useful. Our scholars have paid particular attention to analysis of the ramifications of practices from the business world adopted by the nonprofit sector, the effects of technological changes and social media on nonprofits’ ability to connect with their constituencies and the implementation of openness and transparency initiatives by the organizations in our sample. One distinctive feature of the SPEN research is detailed knowledge of inter-organizational relationships among nonprofits, as well as between nonprofits and foundations, government bureaus, and businesses.

The SPEN sample fully represents the diversity of the Bay Area nonprofit sector, including soup kitchens, parent-teacher associations, soccer clubs, housing associations, poverty relief organizations, art museums, and hospitals. The organizations range from very small to extremely large, and are located in urban centers as well as suburban neighborhoods.

Original research team

The SPEN project developed through the hard work of a large research team. In the early years, the team included Patricia Bromley, Denise Gammal, Hokyu Hwang, Caroline Simard, and David Suarez. More recently, the research team includes Christof Brandtner and Aaron Horvath, both PhD candidates in the Department of Sociology, along with a number of Stanford undergraduate research assistants. Our most recent work examines how nonprofit organizations assume more transparent orientations, the ways in which they weathered the financial crisis, and how they have developed an online presence.

SPEN researchers share insights on the project.