I first encountered the puzzle that inspired my recent book, Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State, at a meeting I attended while working at The Boston Foundation between college and graduate school. It was a meeting convened by prominent elder statesmen of the local nonprofit community and attended by representatives of local foundations and city government to hear a presentation by Tufts professor James Jennings about Boston’s neighborhoods, inequality, and nonprofits.

Jennings shared a series of maps that have fascinated me ever since—so much so that I write about them in the last chapter of my book. They gave spatial location to both what he called “neighborhood distress” and nonprofit organizations, demonstrating how the areas of highest distress were those which were home to the city’s Black and Latinx populations and to significant numbers of nonprofit organizations. Those attending the meeting, understandably, focused their conversation on what kinds of investments or strategies could help bolster nonprofit capacity to address the longstanding inequality already familiar to those around the table. To me, however, the maps begged a historical question about how these overall patterns of residential segregation and organizational concentration coexisted and persisted.

I share that anecdote because, first, I am always interested in why people study what they do, and second, because it highlights that the origins of this academic book are rooted in the realm of practice. As a historian who teaches at a public policy school, my professional work involves connecting past to present and theory to practice. The HistPhil community, to me, embodies those dynamics too in promoting knowledge that is useful and meaningful.

Nonprofit Neighborhoods reflects my interest in big questions of whether nonprofit organizations can and should address inequality in U.S. cities. With the book, I wanted to understand why, in the United States, we so heavily rely on small associational entities to solve big problems, and private nonprofits to address public issues. Exploring those tensions required looking to the past in the decades before nonprofits played the prominent role in urban governance that they do today, and zooming out to consider the funding relationships, policy choices, and power dynamics that structurally linked nonprofits to government and focused their work on issues of urban poverty.

The questions at the heart of Nonprofit Neighborhoods might have begun as a personal puzzle but soon became research questions informed by literatures on cities, nonprofit organizations, and poverty policy in the past and present. Despite their individual strengths, however, these areas have remained too separate. On balance, the literature on nonprofit organizations and what some call the “nonprofit industrial complex” lacked a temporal and spatial grounding in the segregated neighborhoods of U.S. postwar cities, while the literature on urban and political history had mostly overlooked a set of grantmaking practices and policy choices central to the American welfare state that funneled public funding to neighborhood nonprofits.

Boston, it turned out, was an ideal place to study these dynamics. At a practical level I was living and studying in the area, which gave me regular access to the rich collection of papers in Northeastern University’s Archive and Special Collection. The archivists there have a strong commitment to preserving the records of area organizations, particularly those in Boston’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods and working on issues of social justice. I read through annual reports and meeting minutes, client and staff surveys, funding requests both awarded and denied, correspondence, newsletters, and budgets to trace how these neighborhood entities were funded and how that funding shaped their anti-poverty activities. Whenever possible I tried to then pair these (and other) organizational records with those archived by their government and foundation funders to recover multiple sides of a funding relationship.

Read the full article about the history of nonprofits by Claire Dunning at HistPhil.