Interview: Claire Dunning

Summer 2023 #42
written by
Claire Dunning
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

Your book – Nonprofit Neighbourhoods – explores the rise of the nonprofit as the new partner in urban renewal from the 1960s, the restructuring of the federal government “as it retreats from American cities”, and how local development starts to largely take place within “pseudo-democratic processes.” Can you recap this historical process and the ideological shifts that underpinned it?

It's primarily a US story, but it’s also a model that has been clearly exported to other places. In the 1950s, American cities were undergoing significant transformations, as the rise of the suburbs and the growth of highways created incentives for white Americans to decamp from urban centres. At the same time, civil rights organising and Black protests demanding equal access and rights and opportunities were also on the rise. So there's a moment of crisis. The “urban crisis” in the United States, which has been highly contested as both a term and a reality, prompts the federal government to respond to a whole range of problems with urban renewal, a programme of heavy federal investment in urban areas, which oft en displaced poor working class Black communities. When the government encountered resistance to urban renewal, policymakers and bureaucrats – at both the local and federal level – decided to include local groups in the process. In the case of Boston, the focus of the book, I explore how local politics and local protests develop during this period, and how an early partnership between a local group – Freedom House – is forged between the city renewal authority. Freedom House, importantly, was a Black organisation led by an African-American couple, Otto and Muriel Snowden, who argued that if the government is planning to renew their neighbourhood of Roxbury and Boston, they would have to include ‘us’. So the government basically capitulates to these demands and they begin to start an experimental process of issuing a grant, a contract, to a local neighbourhood group to take on a role of facilitating neighbourhood participation in urban renewal. While this is a very specific story, it also speaks to a much larger transformation that then takes on a life of its own: it suddenly becomes a deeply politically popular move to partner with a local nonprofi t, particularly as a way of satisfying the demands for inclusion from Black Americans, and then later Latinx and other minoritised communities. It also, in some ways, compensates for legacies of exclusion and discrimination.

The rise of federal grant giving became a formal piece of American social policy in the 1960s under President Johnson. His government’s War on Poverty expanded the experimental use of government grants, and these infused both resources and authority into community groups in ways that had not existed before. That said, these were limited programmes, rooted in an ethos of competition, of experimentation, of privatising what might have been a public government role in other neighbourhoods. So there's really two sides of these governing relationships that I explore in the book. They are expanding who participates in American governance, in cities, in places of discrimination. That's really important. There's new grassroots engagement in decisions around recruitment and the design of social services, and this is deeply linked to the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, the growing Women's Movement, and other sorts of demands for recognition of the full rights of citizenship. At the same time, these grants or contractual relationships are ones of power. The government retains the ability to choose its partners and, as a result, the power to discipline and survey and monitor these community groups by extending a grant and then retracting it, or extending a grant and then monitoring and constraining the politics of these local groups.

The legacy that the book traces runs from the 1950s all the way to the present, following a general consensus from the top and below, that private local groups can and should play a significant role in urban governance. That's had mixed consequences. I think we can celebrate how these relationships have decentralised and diversified American governance, but also discuss how they have also really constrained our ability to solve public problems by shrinking down the scale and depending on really limited organisations to solve problems that are structurally far beyond their borders.

Your historical account offers an unknown or often overlooked context to the “government’s disavowal of its ability to meet social needs”, and the rise of selective welfare that is administered by “private entities with a public charter.” What are the consequences of outsourcing “public making” to such private entities?

There are a couple that I think are really important. One is that we see more diverse, more decentralised, and in some ways more democratic responses to local problems. The infusion of government grants and resources and authority to groups led by minoritised people, though, was not guaranteed. These groups fought really hard to access these public goods and resources and identified a real critique with the way that government had been operating. This was and is a deeply exclusionary, segregated, and discriminatory system of government and governance that persists. So the push to include local nonprofits in governance is a critique against that, and the consequences are a more locally responsive set of governing practices, which is a really abstract concept.

One of the things that the book tries to do is to make real these big ideas about urban governance. It means that when a local Puerto Rican group in Boston is facing the redevelopment of their neighbourhood, they demand the ability to own the land and control its future, so they architecturally and visually design a set of affordable housing units, both a high-rise apartment building and a low-rise set of townhouses, that look like Puerto Rico. They name it Villa Victoria. So it creates an opportunity to influence local housing development, in terms of affordability and cultural preferences. It’s an extraordinarily profound achievement that this group fought for through protest, through community organising, and local mobilisation. Those buildings remain in Boston. That is one of the consequences of this kind of urban governance.

But it’s not all perfect. Firstly, we often have the tendency to look at individual nonprofits. We champion groups like the Emergency Tenants Council who built Villa Victoria, or we criticise other organisations and trim their budget, as if they failed to have the same impact. But I think we need to zoom out more. We need to think at the structural level about what it means to rely on these organisations to promote a social good and address problems such as deep structural inequality. The answer is that not everyone can win and build the same kind of housing as Villa Victoria – there are deep inconsistencies across diff erent neighbourhoods. Another group I talk about in the book lead the development of an affordable housing complex in Boston, where they plan to house around 200 families at an affordable level. It's really significant. But 2,000 families show up to sign up on the waitlist. To me, that's a mismatch between the achievement of a set of affordable units and the inadequacy of these kinds of programmes.

After-school tutoring programs, community gardens, affordable housing, health care affordability – all of those are really important and really inadequate when we're talking about the limited numbers of people who are able to access such initiatives or services. I think the ‘consequence’ question also speaks to, in some ways, the ideological narrative that spins out on when we see and celebrate the achievements of local nonprofit groups. It fuels a narrative that the private is better than the public, and that the nonprofit is superior to government provision. There are elements to that which are true, but the narrative has gotten away and fuelled this neoliberal approach that has maligned and hollowed out the capacity for government, which has both the democratic authority and the reach and resources to do things at a scale that local groups just simply cannot. So that's one of the larger-scale consequences of this structural shift of relying on community groups – both empowering and constraining local groups to address problems.

Illustration by Matthew Brazier

Do you think this has played into a broader disconnect between government and local community development, and in the declining trust in those types of public institutions? How does it undermine the concept of democratic institutions? (i.e. when they become grant managers rather than direct providers of public goods?)

Absolutely. The notion of democratic authority is essential when we're thinking about outsourcing contractual relationships. Nonprofit organisations in the US are legally chartered as private entities that pursue a public good. As private entities, they have become mediators or brokers between the state and market in the lives of individuals in traditionally disinvested neighbourhoods. So it means that poor people, particularly people of colour, are having their needs met by a private organisation that is dependent on fundraising. Essentially, they're dependent on private organisations to participate in governing decisions. Or put another way, a private entity is helping facilitate and represent their voice. Their access to public goods and services is mediated. Now in some ways they might be getting more than they had, given the legacies of exclusion, but it's still being brokered by a private entity. That, to me, raises real questions of democratic accountability and authority when the needs of some are being brokered or mediated.

So many in need across American cities are shunted through private organisations where there's no electoral accountability (you can’t vote a non profit leader out of office). Your access to public funds is dependent upon the ability to craft a compelling grant proposal. These are not evenly distributed resources when they're done through competitive programmes of grants that are then subjected to constraints, cuts, monitoring, three year grant cycles: that's not a way to distribute equally and equitably public resources and I think merits a deeper conversation about those kinds of processes.

And then the other part around democratic pressures is that it also deeply politicises these kinds of relationships. Nonprofit organisations in the US, by nature of our tax code, are required to be nonpartisan. There are really important reasons why that's the case, but there's a deep pressure to not just be nonpartisan, but also to be non-political. As neighbourhood groups and independent nonprofits lose some of their independence, it deeply constrains their ability to talk about policy, to talk about power, and to protest.

It's not universally true, but there is a deep, quieting power that comes through the financial and funding relationships that have evolved in the United States since the 1960s. And that's really troubling to me. I teach courses on nonprofit organisations, and I always tell my students, nonprofits are about creating change. And if we're talking about change, we're talking about power, and if we're talking about power, we're talking about politics. It's okay to be political and to talk about policy, but the sort of broader ecosystem in which these organisations operate really constrains, in both real and imagined ways, their ability to talk about policy. Yet policy is our biggest tool to actually create substantive change; it's the tool by which we undermine deep legacies of inequality that have been created by policy. And it's going to take policy to undo them. And so the democratic question, small 'd' democracy, is what happens when we rely so heavily on these deeply constrained private organisations.

One part of the story of urban renewal is the history of municipal racism and the lack of institutional funding for racially minoritised neighbourhoods. For the government and large foundations, community development bodies represented an opportunity for non- political Black leadership, and in terms of national politics it would undermine coalitional efforts to make serious demands for structural economic change. How did this tension play out at the local level in communities of Boston?

If we're talking about the nonprofit sector, at least in the United States, we have to talk about race. One of the things the book tries to do is to link the growth and expansion of the nonprofit sector to the civil rights movement and the rise of Black Power and to legacies of exclusion. That such communities’ needs are being met through nonprofit organisations is a reflection of the unevenness and the exclusionary policies of who has access to clean parks, adequate housing, and decently funded schools. All of that has been met by nonprofit supplement in neighbourhoods and communities that have been denied access. So on the one hand we can see nonprofit organisations as a space of community mobilisation; self help, responsiveness and meeting local needs in the absence of government provision. And that legacy really persists. There's a deep tension around what it means to partner with a government that has excluded you for decades and centuries and continues to not recognise your full right of citizenship. So for people who are inspired by the Black Power movement and the sort of ethos of self-determination, founding a non profit organisation and claiming it as a Black space and site of authority is a deeply powerful response to a government that has a history of exclusion. And so it's a way of creating alternate decision making and authority structures through community groups in a neighbourhood.

So I write about groups such as the Roxbury Multi-Service Center that claim an identity as a Black organisation serving a Black neighbourhood, creating alternative forms of decision making and service provision. There are ways in which that's attractive to the government, which remains white-led and enables mayors and elected officials to meet demands for more inclusion, more diversity by keeping Black leadership out of the political realm. Now there are certainly members of the Black community who are running for office, who are challenging at the political level, in the electoral sphere, but they are running up against a variety of barriers. And so it's the celebration of having Black-led organisations as partners to government – having a seat at the table without actually having the ability to control or make policy decisions beyond a small neighbourhood-based sphere that has enabled these relationships to persist. These kinds of governing structures continue to be both a site of demand and a site of acquiescence, and how urban governance is developed in the United States.

Illustration by Matthew Brazier

Your criticism rightly focuses on the outsized role of unelected bodies – memberless entities – in the community development process in American cities. But the rise of the nonprofit – the advocacy explosion – also displaced vast numbers of democratic membership bodies and came to monopolise the definition of social reform. Do you see any opportunities for mediation between popularly rooted associations and government? Is there potential for partnerships that can be more democratic than the current public-private model?

On the one hand, in terms of the decline of membership organisations, I think it's important to recognise that some of these local neighbourhood groups do offer a certain level of democratic processes. The Emergency Tenants Council held neighbourhood elections for their board of directors, for example. There are some of these mechanisms in place at the local level, but again they're happening outside the formal political sphere. So even any small sense of accountability or neighbourhood participation is a poor substitute for actual political power. One of the things that the historical record always tells us is that large-scale mass movements, social movements of people organised in membership societies and outside of it, that's how change happens. It's not through these hyper-local organisations, unless they're working in partnership, in coalition, and have the ability to build something larger and beyond their own neighbourhood-based boundaries.

The scale issue is really important and people on the ground, of course, know this. This is not something new to recognise. What is important is that people who are footing the bill – private funders or government funders – are deeply sceptical of social movements, in part because they think they're hard to measure (advocacy organising is a hard thing to quantify and prove impact). We're in an era where this obsession with efficacy, efficiency, impact measurement and evaluation makes it really hard for groups that are rooted in an organising and membership tradition to attract funding.

Since the book has come out, one of the messages I'm trying to push to funders, which people on the ground know, is that funding social movements is the biggest lever for creating social change. This means they have to accept the discomfort around long-term investment into grassroots entities, membership organisations, and democratic processes. That's how power shift in the political and policy sphere. It's not about counting after-school tutoring programmes, even if they are really important. It's about shifting funding from the top. It's also about recognising what membership-based, dues-paying, independent funding mechanisms can create – the insulation to move a political policy agenda in ways that push the government to fulfil its democratic role of serving a full public and not just a selective one.

This shift in how we respond to economic inequality has only accelerated in the last 20 years, as indicated by the fact that half of the 85,000 foundations in the US were established during this period. With such a weakened public sector and a consistent decline in trust in large institutions, how do we reverse this process?

We need to reimagine what the role of government can and should be. And it is happening. We need to recognise that public provision is how large-scale needs get met and that we can and should expect the public sector to meet those needs. We need to recognise that government has largely abdicated that responsibility but is the potential source of basic needs and services. I think the Medicare for All movement has pushed this notion of what a public option and public provision could look like, such as the initiative to expand childcare tax credits. Those are very specific policies, but nonetheless rooted in a very different kind of notion about a government-provided social safety net.

So part of the answer is in expanding public provision, and part is in identifying where public funding already exists but is made invisible, as is the case when nonprofits provide local – but government funded – services. It also means grappling with the historical legacies where public provision has also been a source of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Only then can we have a conversation about what we can expect public goods to look like, what is a public good, who has access to them, and what would a fuller public provision look like. In many ways, that was what many of the local activists and nonprofit leaders I write about in the book were wanting and why the growth of nonprofit involvement in urban governance has stalled. A close look at this history can, I hope, reignite the call for change and build a more just and equitable society where all people can thrive.

Claire Dunning is assistant professor of public policy and history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Summer 2023 #42

Suggested reading

B Corp: The Certification that won’t save the planet

Michael O'Regan
Summer 2023 #42

Small is Beautiful... But is it still relevant?

Dan Gregory, Tim Crabtree, Bronwen Morgan, Peter North, Fernanda Vidal & Juliana Diniz
Summer 2023 #42

Demanding Democracy

Carne Ross
Summer 2023 #42

The Rawlsian Revolt: A Review of 'Free and Equal'

Maxwell Jeffery
Summer 2023 #42
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.