Nonprofits, Not Elected Officials, Often Represent Poor Urban Communities in America

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November 7, 2016; London School of Economics, “USCentre”

Community-based nonprofits have become a key part of urban policymaking, a trend augmented by the growth of public-private partnerships where they partner with local government in areas like economic development. In a study based on his work in Boston, Prof. Jeremy Levine found that in some poor urban communities, nonprofits take the place of elected officials as de facto community advocates and representatives.

In an abstract just published by the London School of Economics’ U.S. Centre, Levine says “this move towards private political representation means that urban policymakers need to reconsider how neighborhoods are represented and gain access to resources.” It also raises some questions about accountability.

Levine points out that community-based organizations (CBOs) are now central to American urban policy—they are “often responsible for developing and managing affordable housing, planning economic development projects, and providing social services and job training programs. In short, the growing reliance on public-private partnerships means that CBOs have become necessary for poor neighborhoods to acquire resources.”

“Yet these organizations’ responsibilities do not end with implementing projects or programs,” he continues in his paper. “While…nonprofits [are prohibited] from participating in partisan electoral politics, existing research nevertheless suggests that CBOs take on important political roles in urban governance.”

Levine explores the different views of this dynamic:

Some scholars think of these organizations as third-party arms of government—essentially, extensions of the welfare state. Others consider them akin to interest groups, advocating for the populations they claim to represent. Still others depict them as political machines, providing elected officials with reliable voting constituencies in exchange for officials’ influence over government grants and contracts.

Levine’s research offers an alternative point of view, that CBOs are essentially “nonelected neighborhood representatives” that sometimes “supersede local elected officials as the legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods.” In addition to providing services and advocacy for disadvantaged communities, they often negotiate with government bureaucrats and private funders for resources.

He developed his views after spending four years observing nine CBOs in Boston, where he had access to private meetings and insights into their political strategies. He also spent ten months working in Boston City Hall and a year working as a consultant for a local foundation.

He goes on to cite an example to illustrate his view—a community meeting about the redevelopment of a small property on vacant city land in a low-income neighborhood. At the meeting, a longtime city councilor, who was questioning the project, saw both local residents and city staff ignore his opposition and instead look toward the executive director of the nonprofit sponsoring the project for guidance and leadership. It was a very public rebuke of the local elected official and an embracing of the CBO as the community’s legitimate voice. And when that CBO filed for bankruptcy shortly afterwards, it was a major setback for the neighborhood. Funders and government officials tried to fill the void with state representation, but met with limited success, resulting in delays in the delivery of resources to the neighborhood.

These findings push our understanding of CBOs and urban governance forward in two ways. First, when we think of CBOs as nonelected neighborhood representatives, it forces us to look beyond elected officials or formal bureaucracies and consider the private forms of political representation in cities. Second, given the reliance on public-private partnerships in US urban policy, the presence (or absence) of these nonelected neighborhood representatives directly affects resource availability in poor neighborhoods.

He looks at both sides of this new dynamic:

Nonprofit organizations are often deeply embedded in local communities, and their elevated political role can offset familiar patterns of urban inequality…But in other ways, this is a troubling shift: nonprofit leaders are not elected and cannot be held accountable with the same sorts of democratic checks and balances that we place on elected politicians.

Jeremy Levine is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan. The London School of Economics’ U.S. Centre focuses on American public policy and politics.—Larry Kaplan

  • bwhite

    CBOs that are reliant on public funding face a tough choice when their communities are not being well-served by their elected officials. Speak out, and they may lose funding. Remain silent, and be part of the problem. In some cases, CBOs have effectively partnered with independent organizing efforts and 504c organizations so those groups can speak up on their behalf. We will likely need more of that to ensure that CBO issues get heard, without compromising the CBOs’ ability to serve their communities.

  • Maybe Ben Carson will help with some grants