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Nonproﬁt organizations exist worldwide and their geographic distribution has become a recent focus of investigation. Research has shown that the scope and dimensions of nonproﬁt sectors vary within and between countries, regions, and cities. To explain these sometimes complex patterns, researchers have considered economic, social, and political variables.
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1. A Recent Field Of Study
While philanthropy and nonproﬁt organizations have long been considered in a number of social science disciplines, the nonproﬁt sector as a distinct ﬁeld of study is a fairly recent phenomenon. Sparked in the early 1970s by a growing recognition of the importance of the nonproﬁt sector and debates about the future of the welfare state, interest in nonproﬁt organizations has grown rapidly in a number of disciplines, particularly sociology, history, economics, political science, public policy, and public administration. While much of the early research was done in the United States, the study of nonproﬁt sectors has recently also grown rapidly in other countries around the world.
Nonproﬁt researchers are interested in deﬁning the nonproﬁt sector, delineating its scope, and understanding the factors determining its existence and activities. This has led researchers to a set of interrelated questions about the sector. Why are there nonproﬁt organizations? What kinds of activities are they involved in? Where are they located?
While deﬁnitions vary, it is generally agreed that the nonproﬁt sector is a set of social entities that are: formally organized, private (nongovernmental), nonproﬁt distributing, self-governing, and voluntary to some degree (Salamon and Anheier 1998). Nonproﬁts have generally been cast alongside for-proﬁt organizations and government agencies as one societal option for providing material and nonmaterial goods and services in models of three-sector economies (Weisbrod 1988). The organizations in each sector are economic entities, but the rationale for their existence varies between sectors. For-proﬁts are oriented toward the pursuit of self-interest, government organizations toward the provision of public goods using coercive authority if necessary, and nonproﬁts toward the mobilization of public spirit and altruism to create social and civic beneﬁts.
2. Geographic Variation Abounds
The extent of the nonproﬁt sector has been shown to vary at a number of geographical levels, including: nations, regions within nations (such as states), cities, and neighborhoods. Variation can be in terms of the numbers of organizations, their activities, and their organizational characteristics.
To explain these variations, researchers have focused on factors ranging from the general to the particular. General factors include social, cultural, economic, and political realms. Much of the research has considered more speciﬁc factors, usually related to supply and demand. Supply-side factors include public and private money, labor, volunteers, and entrepreneurs. The demand side has focused on the desire or need for different types of goods or services, which is usually seen as dependent upon individual or community characteristics. Supply and demand have also been linked to general factors, for example demands due to a history of discrimination, lack of access to alternate services as a result of public policy, or demands due to the esthetic desires of a community.
Given that the study of nonproﬁt geography is a new research agenda carried out by investigators in a number of different disciplines, there is as yet no deﬁnitive set of ﬁndings and conclusions. We will, therefore, outline the various approaches that are being pursued, highlight representative ﬁndings, and speculate on the future.
2.1 Cross-National Variation
An early model (Smith 1973) linked formal voluntary organizations to a number of general conditions in a society that were related, in turn, to societal modernization. In this model, nonproﬁt prevalence is positively related to the frequency, extent, and permanence of communication among the members of a society; the number of different goals available to them; the degree to which collective action is permissible in the society; and the degree to which there are resources and payoffs for collective action.
A variety of additional explanations have also been proposed to account for cross-national variation in the deﬁnition, prevalence, and role of the nonproﬁt form. One variable frequently cited is the increased demand for different types of public goods generated in more religious, ethnic, or ideologically heterogeneous populations (Weisbrod 1988). Democratic government, with its mandate to serve the majority, will not satisfy this ‘heterogeneous demand.’ Forproﬁts, likewise, will not provide these public goods. It is, consequently, left to nonproﬁts to supply them.
In addition, a number of country-speciﬁc characteristics have been considered by researchers. These include religious, ideological, and political traditions; historical contingencies; and the institutional models that result from the interaction of these factors. An example would be historically based variations in the deﬁnitions of what is public and what is private and the state-private sector relations that result (including relations between the organizations in each sector).
An ambitious project is currently underway to assess the nonproﬁt sector worldwide more systematically. This project includes 22 developed and developing countries. Overall, the sector has been found to be extensive and growing. Descriptive analyses of the data acquired to date show that national nonproﬁt sectors vary in terms of the numbers of nonproﬁt organizations, the services they provide, their revenues, and their employment (Salamon et al. 1999). A variety of factors to explain this variation have been proposed and tested. In terms of general trends, the rise of a third sector on the global level has been linked to the substitution of private service provision for welfare state or socialistic government services, increased activity in the areas of development and environmentalism, the rise in middle-class expectations, and improvements in communication technology.
A more extensive analysis of this data (Salamon and Anheier 1998) used seven countries to test major theories of the nonproﬁt sector. Explanatory variables included: societal heterogeneity (as outlined above), the supply of social entrepreneurs, a lack of trust in the for-proﬁt market sector, a relatively weak welfare state which has not displaced a previously existing nonproﬁt sector, and a relatively large welfare state which uses existing and new nonproﬁts to deliver government-funded services. In addition to these, a more integrated ‘social origins’ theory was also included. In this theory, choices about whether to rely on market, for-proﬁt or government provision of goods and services are determined by patterns of historical development and broader social, political, and economic relationships. Of particular interest are class relationships and patterns of state-society relations. While partial support was found for a number of factors, social origins theory was found to provide the greatest overall explanation, generating four models of nonproﬁt sector development.
2.2 Regional And State Variation
Research on nonproﬁt geography within nations has been carried out primarily in the United States. Most of this work has involved case studies or comparisons among a small number of areas. Only a few studies have focused on regions or states, undoubtedly because of the difficulty of acquiring data on these areas. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC provide information on nonproﬁt organizations in the United States. However, only certain data are collected, and these only from larger nonproﬁts, which are required to provide information to the IRS. It has been estimated that only about a third of the total number of nonproﬁts provide such information. Given these limitations, researchers are often required to collect their own data, a signiﬁcant undertaking for areas as large as states and regions.
In terms of regional variation in the United States, a few descriptive studies have been done. These typically ﬁnd that the largest number of nonproﬁts and the greatest nonproﬁt expenditures are in the northeast region and the lowest in the south. At the level of the state, a number of studies are currently underway to determine the scope of the nonproﬁt sectors in particular states. In addition, a comparative study of state nonproﬁt incorporations (Abzug and Turnheim 1998) included a number of demand variables (state ﬁscal health, crime, poverty, unemployment, and heterogeneity) as well as supply variables (the state legal environment and the legitimacy of the nonproﬁt form). While a number of these factors were signiﬁcant when considered separately, when taken together, the legitimacy of the nonproﬁt form had the most explanatory power.
2.3 City And Metropolitan Variation
Numerous studies in the United States have examined nonproﬁt distributions and spatial patterns both within and between cities or metropolitan regions. Prominent within-city research includes the work of McPherson and his colleagues (McPherson and Rotolo 1996), who used ecological models of organizations to study nonproﬁts in a Midwest community. Nonproﬁts located where potential members with particular demographic characteristics (potential organizational resources) were found within the metropolitan region. In addition, Wolch and Geiger (1983) studied the distribution of social welfare and community service nonproﬁts across municipalities in Los Angeles County and found it to be positively related to community needs and resources. Wolch has also analyzed the geography of children’s services in Los Angeles County, and found signiﬁcant variation and gaps in coverage due to zoning, land prices, and neighborhood characteristics.
In terms of cross-city research, a major descriptive study by the Urban Institute in the early 1980s gathered and compared data on the nonproﬁt sectors in 12 sites across the United States (Salamon 1987). The research showed signiﬁcant variation in metropolitan nonproﬁt sectors. In a more detailed study, Wolch (1990) identiﬁed voluntary—rich and voluntary—poor metropolitan areas among 15 United States cities. A signiﬁcant trend revealed in the data was that welfare state reorganization, including privatization, stimulated the growth of voluntary sectors. This effect, though, was shaped by local economic and demographic factors.
The most extensive research on metropolitan nonproﬁt sectors has been carried out by Julian Wolpert. Beginning with studies of Philadelphia and New York his research expanded to compare regions and has most recently been focused on 85 cities across the United States (see for example Wolpert 1993). Regional differences in nonproﬁt sectors have been linked to regional economic cycles. Metropolitan differences have been related to community variation in generosity (measured by both private giving and public spending), with higher rates of generosity being positively related to income and negatively related to population and distress levels. In addition, nonproﬁts were more prevalent and more targeted to human services in center cities than in suburbs.
Political culture has been related to nonproﬁt presence in a study of two metropolitan areas (Bielefeld and Corbin 1996). The research used a classiﬁcation of political culture based on citizen attitudes about the proper role of government. It showed that the nonproﬁt sector was larger in a political culture where citizens supported government redistribution of wealth as opposed to a political culture that favored a government role restricted to promoting the market or reinforcing the status quo in the community. This was also found in a study of nine metropolitan regions (Bielefeld 2000). This study also supported Wolpert’s conclusions about generosity.
2.4 Neighborhood Variation
Relatively few systematic spatial studies of nonproﬁt organizations have been carried out at the neighborhood level. A study of nonproﬁts across Dallas, Texas (Bielefeld et al. 1997) found that nonproﬁt organizations were more strongly inﬂuenced by demographic factors (representing resources and need) in their immediate areas, as opposed to the demographic characters of areas further removed from them. These results indicate that the nonproﬁt sector is closely tied to the dynamics of local communities. Given these ﬁndings, the lack of research at this level may be a serious oversight.
Most other neighborhood studies have been more descriptive and have used geographical information systems (GIS) techniques to relate providers and needs spatially, within or across neighborhoods in metropolitan areas. In a typical example, a project by the Center on Nonproﬁts and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute used a spatial analysis to examine the relationships between the nonproﬁts that serve families and children and the socioeconomic characteristics of three low-income neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. The purpose was to show how neighborhood environments, including the presence of nonproﬁt organizations, affected the well being of community residents (DeVita et al. 2000).
3. The Need For Convergence
With few exceptions, geographers have not carried out the research described above. In addition, the results have not found their way into the mainstream of that discipline. Consequently, the geographic study of nonproﬁt sectors is in its infancy and much remains to be explained. Closer ties between the nonproﬁt research community and geographers are likely to prove beneﬁcial to both camps. Nonproﬁt research has clearly shown that signiﬁcant geographical variation exists in the nonproﬁt sector and has suggested a number of important variables to account for it. This should convince geographers that the nonproﬁt sector is a relevant area of inquiry. On the other hand, geography, with its conceptualizations and analyses of location, place, relationships, movement, and region, clearly has much to offer nonproﬁt researchers in terms of methodology, variables, and theories. This is especially true for economic and cultural geography, which considers many of the same kinds of issues which interest the nonproﬁt research community (see for example Lee and Wills 1997). It is because of this convergence of interests that a more well-developed geography of the nonproﬁt sector should be pursued.
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