[continued from History of the West Coast Nonprofit Data Conference]

Helmut focuses more on public policy. From its very beginnings, political frameworks have shaped the nonprofit research agenda both in the US and abroad. As part of a push and pull between policy debates and research, these frameworks encourage conceptual innovation and generate new data needs.

There are currently four broad policy perspectives that position nonprofits in specific ways and allocate certain roles to them. Together, these roles add to the service-delivery and advocacy functions ascribed to nonprofits when the initial research agenda was first put in place in after the Filer Commission in the 1970s:

First, since the 1980s, nonprofits have increasingly become part of new public management approaches and what could be called a mixed economy of welfare with a heavy reliance on quasi-markets and competitive bidding processes. Expanded contracting regimes in health and social service provision, voucher programs of many kinds, and public-private partnerships are examples of this development. In essence, this policy approach sees nonprofits as more efficient provider than public agencies, and as more trustworthy than forprofit businesses in markets where monitoring is costly and profiteering likely.

Conceptual innovations with corresponding data needs are the topics of social entrepreneurship, hybridity and other form developments like low profit corporations and social enterprises.

Second, since the 1990s, they are seen as central to building and rebuilding civil society, and for strengthening the nexus between social capital and economic development. Attempts to revive or strengthen a sense of community and belonging, enhance civic mindedness and engagement, including volunteering and charitable giving, are illustrative of this perspective. With the social fabric changing, civic associations of many kinds are seen as the glue holding diverse society together. The basic assumption is that people embedded in dense networks of associational bonds are not only less prone to social problems of many kinds but also economically more productive and politically more involved.

Civil society has become a mainstream political concept that is now being applied in many different parts of the world: from the Arab Spring to the Putin semi-authoritarian Russia. The key research question is the applicability of civil society in diverse social and cultural contexts, and the future meaning of sociability, trust and social capital in a world increasingly located in cyberspace.

Third, in the 2000s, nonprofits became part of a wider social accountability perspective that sees these organizations as instruments of greater transparency, and heightened accountability for improving governance of public institutions and business alike. Such mechanisms include citizen advisory boards, community councils, participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, monitoring of public service delivery, and consumers protection in many markets and fields. The underlying premise is that conventional accountability enforcement mechanism like elections, public oversight agencies and the media are falling short; nonprofits are to become the social whistleblower and advocates for voices that would otherwise remain unheard.

The innovations are manifold here and stretch from e-governance to the cacophony of website that like mysociety or Ushahidi. The data challenge is how to take advantage of the vast array of cyber data that will become available for both research and policy advocacy. The impact of social media on the nonprofit sector and its advocacy role remains one of the major research questions from a policy perspective.

Finally, in this decade, there is the policy perspective that views nonprofits as a source of innovation in addressing social problems of many kinds. Indeed, nonprofits are assumed to be better at such innovations than governments typically are: their smaller scale and greater proximity to communities affected and concerned makes them creative agents in finding solutions. Governments are encouraged to seek a new form of partnership with nonprofits aimed at identifying, vetting and scaling up social innovations to build more flexible, less entrenched, public responses

This is the latest of the policy debates engulfing the nonprofit field. To what extend can nonprofits actually innovate, and to what extent are such innovations being picked up, vetted, improved, and taken to scale as well as scope?

Reflections on Nonprofit Sector Research


In sum, the field of nonprofit sector research offers a growing and increasingly differentiated agenda, embedded in major social science concerns, and presenting many more opportunities for cutting-edge analytical and empirical work. In a significant way, nonprofit studies has outgrown a reliance on tax-based data (although these remain central and their maintenance vitally important!) and branched out into other organizational and individual level data, and is entering cyberspace as the new data frontier.

Joseph Galaskiewicz and Helmut Anheier
April 2013
Berkeley, CA