It’s not often that a body of work comes along that makes us ask big questions about the nonprofit sector. Claire Dunning’s new book, Nonprofit Neighborhoods, is one. In it, she not only traces the development of the nonprofit sector. She anchors the sector to one key observation: it was created to offset demands for democracy, particularly by people of color. And that is one big indictment.

While the title of the book might belie the scope of inquiry, Dunning makes the case that using nonprofits as a “tool for addressing urban problems” has led to a form of “urban governance” that uses private organizations to fulfill public, democratic rights.

She writes, “The formal engagement of neighborhood-based nonprofits in urban governance constitutes one of the most profound, if hidden, transformations in the United States over the second half of the twentieth century.”1

Nonprofits as Policy Failure

Dunning proposes that the continued presence of nonprofits represents a policy failure: “the failure to create a more inclusive and responsive government, failure to adequately meet the needs of low-income residents, and failure to dismantle the racism of the city’s and nation’s political-economic structures.”15

While some in the sector may think that the highest leverage work is systems change, Dunning argues that what is instead needed is structural change, which will not come from systems change. Systems change focuses on making a system work better. Structural change is about changing systems. Ultimately, that is the change marginalized people seek—to no longer be marginalized.

And, while savvy nonprofit leaders have used their positions in nonprofits as “springboards into elected and appointed roles in government,” they have also served as “proxies for community input.”16 Dunning writes, “In Boston, the city’s most economically and socially distressed neighborhoods in the twenty-first century are also those with the most neighborhood nonprofits.”17

Ultimately, what we need is “the power to design, control, or shape the system itself.”18 But this kind of political activity is exactly what the nonprofit designation discourages.

Dunning concludes that while the work of nonprofits is not unimportant, it is inadequate for the social change we seek: “Instead, the slow work of building social movements and growing political power has been the most productive path to structural change; it is no accident that those activities have been the hardest to measure or track, and the hardest to get funded.”19

Read the full article about Nonprofit Neighborhoods by Cyndi Suarez at Nonprofit Quarterly.