Civic Life of Cities Lab

About Our Research

Across the world, nonprofit organizations are part of the social fabric. They cultivate political and creative expression and spur movements for environmental preservation and human rights. They provide shelter, sanctuary, and support for people in need. And by creating spaces for people to convene both within and across lines of difference, they serve as bulwarks of community cohesion.

Initially established in 2002 as a study of nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area, the project has since expanded to include seven cities around the world: San Francisco, Seattle, Shenzhen, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, and Vienna. Through a combination of surveys, interviews, administrative data, and analyses of websites and social media platforms, we have conducted research and published on a range of topics.

  • The professionalization of the nonprofit sector and its implications for civic life,
  • The proliferation of impact assessments, quantitative evaluations, and others forms of formal oversight and how these demands have transformed how nonprofits perform their work and relate to the communities they serve,
  • The responsiveness of nonprofits to the crises facing their communities, including the Great Recession, the ongoing housing crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • The digitalization of civil society and the implications of moving civil society from in-person to online,
  • The different ways in which nonprofits create integration and build communities and their consequences.

From a comparative and organizational perspective, we study the commonalities and differences among nonprofit organizations around the world, and investigate how they weave together community life and sustain the vitality of civil society in different social, political, and cultural contexts.


The richness of our data stems from our use of a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods to understand how nonprofits interact with their local contexts and gain a deeper understanding of the motive, meanings, and consequences of these interactions.

In addition to the official records, we collect data from multiple sources:

  • We collect quantitative responses through surveys with common modules on topics such as leadership, collaboration, performance, and community integration.
  • We conduct in-depth interviews with nonprofit leaders to help us build a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of their work.
  • We examine the websites and social media platforms of the nonprofit organizations that we study to see how they engage with digital technology and its consequences.

Comparative Approach

Cities in our sample provide notable paired contrasts, hence an opportunity for a deeper understanding of why and how context matters.

Comparing and contrasting the experiences of nonprofit organizations in different social, political, and cultural contexts helps us see the role of nonprofits in weaving together community life and whether they sustain the vitality of civil society both within and across cities.

Linking Organizational and Urban Perspective

Organizations are vehicles through which people attain voice, identity, and affiliations, and differences and commonalities of organizations both shape and are shaped by local contexts of cities in which people live.

We integrate the lens of organizational and urban studies to better understand the role of nonprofit organizations in civic lives of cities and their importance for individual and collective outcomes.