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Robert F. Ashcraft, Ph.D.
ASU Lodestar Center
Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.
In a prior post titled, "Really, How Many Nonprofits Are There?" my colleague Professor Mark Hager dissected the conundrum faced by nonprofit researchers in answering that question. To a casual observer, it seems so easy to answer, and yet, as Mark explained, it is quite complex. As researchers attempt to explain this and other questions, they are sometimes charged with the claim, "Oh, you people are just too academic!" I always find that exclamation amusing, since truth-seeking is about understanding complex phenomena and overcoming huge methodological challenges—explanations of which are not always welcomed in a world that places a premium on superficial sound bites and speedy, surface-level interpretation.
Determining the number of nonprofits is even more challenging when considering the question, "Where do nonprofits operate?" Often, funders and others ask this because they want to know to what extent various nonprofits serve a particular geographic location (e.g., city, county, etc.). While there may be value in knowing where building-centered nonprofits (e.g., museums, recreation centers, etc.) exist, the analysis falls apart when considering nonprofits that provide services instead (often to our most vulnerable citizens). For example, a study done several years ago in Los Angeles suggested that South Central Los Angeles is devoid of much-needed services provided by nonprofits (such as domestic violence shelters) because census track data did not reveal any located in the area. Using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, the report depicted a rather bleak picture of "nonprofitness" in the area as compared to other regions.
However, those "on the ground" who know our field realize that where a nonprofit is headquartered may not at all describe where their activity takes place. For example, domestic violence shelters are, by design, quietly hidden and not widely publicized by street addresses. In the case of Los Angeles, a node of domestic violence shelter mailing addresses actually led to a Post Office located in a high-wealth area of the city. To suggest that domestic violence shelters are only clustered in high-wealth areas and do not serve people in lower socioeconomic areas would be a flaw in data interpretation.
Such is the case with legacy nonprofits like the American Red Cross, Scouting Programs, or Big Brothers Big Sisters. Only tracking street address locations of these organizations does not begin to account for the field staff that provide services out of their homes and/or serve multiple regions from a home base or headquarters. Such flaws also ignore the contributions of volunteers who live in neighborhoods and provide services away from the headquarters or branch locations. I could also argue that, in order to tell the real story of building-centered nonprofits, we must also include forms of mission delivery such as museums’ traveling exhibits to underserved communities and/or the use of on-line education tools that are available to anyone, anywhere, who has Internet access.
So a better question than "Where is the office?" is, "Where is the impact?" Although this question represents yet another vexing challenge to nonprofit researchers, it certainly moves us beyond "How many nonprofits are there?" and closer to understanding the "nonprofitness" of community.