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A Discussion of Nonprofit Neighborhoods with Dr. Claire Dunning

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The city skyline of boston on a clear sunny day.

Claire Dunning is an assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is an affiliated faculty member in the Do Good Institute and the History Department. Dunning is a political and urban historian of the United States in the 20th century, focusing on the history of poverty, inequality, governance, and nonprofit organizations. Her work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, and Enterprise & Society, as well as the Washington Post. Dunning holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and a bachelor’s in history and public policy from Dartmouth College. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and previously worked at a community foundation.

Her newly published book, “Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State,” explores how policy changes at the federal level and social movements at the local level combined to dramatically alter the organizational landscape of urban neighborhoods and the practice of urban governance. This interview was conducted and the recap written by Jenny Cox.

We can't meaningfully address poverty and inequality without policy. We can't move a policy agenda without talking about race and politics and power.
Dr. Claire Dunning

Congratulations on your new book! I’d love to start by having you briefly summarize some of the main findings and topics in Nonprofit Neighborhoods. 

The book starts on the premise that, when we look at cities in the United States, nonprofits do a lot of 'stuff', right? They develop housing, they provide after-school programs, they advocate for people who don't have legal representation and they clean up parks and organize gardens. I wanted to recognize that this system is not natural. It's the product of choices made in the past. 

To understand why and how nonprofits do so much in cities and are so central to urban redevelopment and urban governance, we have to ask historical questions. We have to go back and identify the choices of policy makers, business leaders and local activists who helped grow the nonprofit sector and deliberately made it a larger part of American governance, therefore tightening the relationship between government and nonprofit organizations.

There was a sense of crisis facing cities in the 1950s, and for various reasons, many people thought that supporting nonprofit organizations to help manage this crisis was a good idea. I really emphasize why this seemed like a good idea at the time and why people from different perspectives promoted it, but then also trace why this strategy has fallen short from what some at the time hoped. The increasing role of nonprofit organizations in cities has been a process of both inclusion and exclusion. 

How did the topic of the post-WWII shifting of nonprofit roles come up in your research?

The questions that actually motivated this research began when I was working at a foundation for two years between college and graduate school. I was working on the housing and community development docket and the nonprofit sector capacity docket. One of the last things I did in that job was go to a meeting in Boston with some of the biggest names in the nonprofit sector who had coordinated this meeting to present new research from a professor at Tufts university, Dr. James Jennings, who shared a series of maps.

He mapped out where nonprofits were located in the city of Boston, and he layered that over what he called a distress score, meaning the most vulnerable and unequal areas by economics, race and social access in the city. He showed in these maps that the most distressed neighborhoods of the city also had the most nonprofit organizations. These maps quite literally changed my thinking and planted this question that I've been wrestling with for the next 10 years of my life- 'If we have this overlap between nonprofits and inequality, what does that say, especially when these nonprofits have existed for decades?' Is that a failure of these organizations or does it actually show that they're meeting needs? What does this say at a structural level about poverty and policy?

I started to look backward, asking, 'Why are the highest need and highest served neighborhoods often overlapping?' It created this seeming contradiction for me which is, over the 20th century, we have incredible growth of the nonprofit sector and growing inequality. That seems counterintuitive to me, right? How do we have nonprofits growing in role, number and size while inequality was also increasing? It was a puzzle for me, and Nonprofit Neighborhoods is very much an outgrowth of that puzzle. I looked to the past and kept going and going, and eventually found the answer in the post World War II realignment. This was a time when the role of government was shifting and the role of the private sector was shifting, and of the civil rights movement and increasing activism. There was a realignment post World War II about rights and access and the nonprofit sector, it turns out, was wrapped up in that.

So when we think about the relationship between nonprofits and inequality, it demands a conversation bigger than tweaking the accounting practices or honing a fundraising strategy. We need to recognize how nonprofits, particularly those working at the neighborhood level, operate in a broader ecosystem where the structural underpinnings of power and race shape who's making decisions, where money's coming from, how they're getting capitalized. For me, zooming out and looking back in time helped me to understand those origins.

What led you to focus on Boston in your book?

I decided it had to be a local story. Other scholars had mapped the growing role of the sector at a national level and had shown the increase in government funding of nonprofits over the 20th century, but I wanted to understand what that looked like on the ground and how it impacted individual neighborhoods. I was living and studying in Boston at the time, and it was a city I knew pretty well. I had access to the archival sources that would become really central material for this book, so from a research perspective, this is where my data was. I could go and look at the archival records of neighborhood based organizations and I could look at their budgets and their staffing models and their intake forms and their protest posters and their grant applications and their failed grant applications, and understand what these organizations were doing and how the flows of money and policy and politics were showing up in real life for people who were trying to make a more equal city. That's a very practical reason about why Boston, but it turned out as I was digging, Boston can also tell us a lot about other cities. The problems that Boston was facing with regard to residential segregation, growing poverty, suburbanization, and de-industrialization, were also happening elsewhere.

Boston was also a real site of innovation as programs started in the city became national and international models. And that was a surprise to me, but it helped me think about Boston as a city of innovation and experimentation that is both characteristic of other cities, but also in the leading edge. 

How have you incorporated some of your findings from working on this book into the classroom?

I love this question and I will say that the relationship of this research and my teaching has gone both ways because I've also learned a lot from my students. In the conclusion of my book, I mention this one particular article published in the Harvard Business Review that a colleague previously taught and introduced to me. I was teaching this article and it really irked me, and the students too. We had great conversations about this article and how it was missing an element of power and discussions of race and discussions of policy that I think are really central when we were trying to think about and reduce inequality. Those discussions in the class and working through my critique with the students really informed my writing. 

One of the things I emphasize for my students, particularly in PLCY213 on the nonprofit sector, is that we can't just think about individual organizations. We have to talk about the broader systems and structures in which they operate, and we can't talk about the nonprofit sector without talking about politics and policy and power and identity. Rather, we should be thinking about how politics, power and policies show up in the nonprofit sector. I emphasize this a lot in the classroom because it's one of the things that's central to my work.

As you know, the School is celebrating its 40th anniversary of serving the public good this year. How has nonprofit policy shifted over the last 40 years; and where do you think we’re going?

When you think about the last 40 years, the number one thing that shifted in the nonprofit realm has been the retreat of government provided goods and services and the rising preference for public-private partnerships and the private delivery of goods and services. Even though government funding is coming in quiet and important ways, this veneration of public-private partnerships as a preferred mode of government governance has been a huge transformation. Those patterns are, as I argue in the book, linked directly to the rise of neoliberalism as an ideology and practice. 

The retreat of government is deeply intertwined with the nonprofit sector. The short term promotion of nonprofits was able to develop housing, provide local healthcare and after school programs, which ended up fueling a conversation about this as the preferred mode of operating. Today, I think we're beginning to see people wanting and demanding a larger role of government in addressing issues of racism, structural inequality and access to democratic rights such as voting. The conversation is shifting around what people want the role of government to be and what they want it to do on their behalf, having seen the real limitations of what the private sector, including nonprofit organizations are able to do. We can celebrate 10 new affordable housing units and recognize that it's not enough to solve the problem of lack of safe, adequate shelter. We can recognize that tutoring programs to help math scores are really valuable and are not the same thing as fully funded public school systems. This isn't to critique individual entities, but to recognize the larger ecosystem of funding, politics and policy. And I think that perhaps we're in the middle of a pivot.

Why do you think it's important for nonprofit leaders to understand the origins of the nonprofit sector, but also, do you think that a large majority of nonprofit leaders know these origins?

Certainly not, and that's not their fault necessarily. It hasn't been part of the conversation, right? It's really important to emphasize that the nonprofit sector is rooted in choices made by people. There's nothing natural about the role that these organizations play and their configuration is deeply tied up in issues of race and managing the increasing diversity of American cities. How do you include people who've been traditionally excluded from the public sector, whether through unequal housing, unequal schools, unequal access to healthcare, poor jobs or segregated neighborhoods? How do you begin to address some of those inequalities, and what happens when you do so an indirect way? The questions of race and identity and power are deeply wrapped up in the sector. I think that for understandable reasons, a lot of the action in the nonprofit world is a race, like a hamster wheel constantly trying to fundraise, deliver important goods and services to survive. Nonprofit leaders already know many of the dynamics and inadequacies I describe in the book, but also are often constrained in their ability to point to those out when funding is on the line. 

Do you think nonprofits, as they function at present, are bound to be defined by the legacies you describe in your book, or is it possible for individual nonprofits and the nonprofit sector as a whole to pivot and become more effective in promoting equality and alleviating poverty?

I think that the nonprofit sector isn’t necessarily bound, but is definitely shaped by the legacies that I describe in the book. The idea of measuring results, tracking where dollars are going, who gets a seat at the table–that's all reflective of choices made in the past. Is it possible for individual nonprofits to pivot and break away from these legacies? They already have been, right? Individual organizations have been doing really important work to promote equality and alleviate poverty through their advocacy, protests, partnerships, and  pushing back against these systems, through demanding access to funding and the decision how to allocate it within their own organizations, and demanding leaders who look like and represent different communities that don't often have visibility. The point is less about how individual entities become more effective, but about why efficacy is the goal, why nonprofits are the frontlines of equity, and why patterns of inadequacy and precarity persist.

This book has been a long-time project for you since first coming to the School of Public Policy. What was this process like for you personally?

It has been a long time, over a decade, that I've been wrestling in different ways with these questions. I'm tired and I'm relieved and I'm proud of this book. Even though I spent my graduate training in history departments with people who focus on the past, the questions that inspired this book came from a practitioner setting of people who are looking at the future. Finding a home at the School of Public Policy has really helped reinforce that I want to be talking to people who are looking toward the future. That's been a full circle moment for me and a challenging one to think about. How do I make sure that the lessons of the past are applicable, easy to understand, exciting and worthwhile to students and colleagues who aren’t necessarily thinking about history (and maybe should be!)?

This has been a huge opportunity for growth that I'm grateful the School of Public Policy and the Do Good Institute have enabled for me.

Who do you feel this book is for, and what takeaways do you hope people get from it?

There is certainly an academic audience, but I hope that students and people who are actually doing this work take from the book an understanding that we can't meaningfully address poverty and inequality without policy. We can't move a policy agenda without talking about race and politics and power. I'm hoping to contribute to  a conversation about the bigger alignment of the role of the nonprofit sector in cities and its relationship to inequality and poverty, which isn't again, to malign the efforts of people who are working really hard on doing important work, but to say, "What happens if we zoom out and recognize the limitations of this approach as a whole and, and how we might envision or build something else?" If what we have was built in the past, we can build something else and let's have a conversation about what that looks like.

Dr. Dunning’s book, “Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State”, can be found online here.

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