Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector


The SPEN Project provides in-depth knowledge of 200 randomly sampled nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area organizations over a period of 15 years. We have analyzed the leadership, staffing, and management practices of these organizations longitudinally, with repeated observations that include interviews, financial data, and analysis of webpages and annual reports. The advantage of our longitudinal sample is that it allows us to analyze the dynamics of organizational practices, how ideas are put into use and to what effect, and how relationships with other organizations influence behavior inside the organizations under study. With this longitudinal data, we explain the processes through which ideas take root. With our detailed analysis of changes over time, we observe which practices have been most useful.

Our sample was originally 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 of others had morphed into for-profit organizations, foundations, or public agencies, merged with another nonprofit, or become part of national federations. We have paid particular attention to analysis of the ramifications of practices from the business world adopted by the nonprofit sector. We also study the effects of technological changes and social media on nonprofits’ ability to connect with their constituencies. We have examined 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 results of this work provide evidence-based insights on such questions as:

  • effectiveness and ramifications of business-like practices in the sector,
  • effect of technological changes and social media on NPOs’ ability to connect with their constituencies,
  • implementation of openness and transparency initiatives throughout the sector,
  • impact of nonprofits on the health of urban communities. 

The SPEN sample fully represents the diversity of the nonprofit sector, including soup kitchens, PTAs, 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.

Research Team

The SPEN project has been 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 large group of Stanford undergraduates as research assistants. Our most recent work has focused attention on how nonprofit organizations take on more transparent orientations, the ways in which these organizations weathered the financial crisis, and how they have developed an online presence.