What follows is an excerpted version of an article entitled, “Do You See What I See? Nonprofit and Resident Perceptions of Urban Problems.”1 It was written by Rebecca J. Kissane of Princeton University and Jeff Gingerich of Bluffton College2 and is based on a study done as part of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s (MDRC) Project on Devolution and Urban Change. The article was originally published in the June 2004 issue of the  Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (Volume 33, Number 2),3 a journal publishing research on nonprofits.

The Nonprofit Quarterly presents the findings of this research in hopes of provoking self-reflection among nonprofit managers and board members because we believe the described problem to be quite widespread among nonprofits. It certainly is not exclusive to community-based organizations. It may be part and parcel of one of the more limiting and unrecognized accountability problems in the sector. Think about how your organization might fare in a study like this. Consider the implications of the situation as laid out by the authors.

Using 85 qualitative interviews collected in three low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods, as part of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s (MDRC) Project on Devolution and Urban Change the authors contrast the views of the directors of community-based organizations with those of the disadvantaged residents living in those communities served. Interviews of neighborhood residents and the staff (mostly executive directors) in 29 agencies contained questions concerning neighborhood problems, other residents, and needed services. The study tested the assumption that local nonprofit leadership is in touch with the resident population that they serve. To make a long story short, the gaps between the perceptions of nonprofit directors on the one hand and residents on the other were significant. In fact, nonprofit directors across neighborhoods held more similar views with each other than they did with residents within their own communities, even though the neighborhoods were quite different. On top of that, the higher the educational attainment of the nonprofit staff person, the greater the gap.

The results of the Gingerich/Kissane analysis are quite stark, challenging the assumption that community-based organizations are on the same page with the resident populations they serve. For instance, where the nonprofit directors saw unemployment/lack of jobs, drugs, and educational issues as the major problems facing their communities, residents emphasized drugs, crime, and violence/safety. According to the authors: “Furthermore, despite our interviewing in three different urban neighborhoods, there was more similarity between nonprofit directors across neighborhoods than between directors and residents within the communities they served. Resident responses varied by neighborhood context. The nonprofit directors, in general, were uniformly positive about community residents, whereas residents conveyed a dual picture of the other residents, seeing most in a negative light but some positively. Additionally, the two groups had differing perceptions on what services organizations should add to their neighborhoods; nonprofit directors wanted to add job placement or job training services, and residents focused on adding youth services.

“When we examined the data by the level of staff professionalization (measured as educational attainment of staff), we found that respondents at agencies with the least professionalized staff held views of neighborhood problems that were more similar to the neighborhood residents. These nonprofit respondents were much more likely than those with more educated staff to believe that the primary concerns of the residents, crime/stealing and violence/safety, were significant problems in the neighborhood. As nonprofit organizations continue to professionalize their staff, as the current funding and policy environs largely dictate (Alexander, Nank, & Stivers, 1999), incongruence in perceptions between nonprofits and residents might, in fact, grow.”

“We also asked the nonprofit directors and residents about what services they would like to add in their neighborhood if they could. It is true that the vantage point from which each group answered the question was quite different; it was foreseeable that nonprofit directors could actually add the service they mentioned, whereas residents likely could not. Nevertheless, this question taps into not only what respondents viewed as problems in the community but also their knowledge of what services agencies already provided. As was the case with our other analyses, we found that the nonprofit directors had different views than the residents of what services to add. The top five services nonprofit directors would add were job placement/job training (45% of directors), youth services (21%), education services (18%), housing services (e.g., housing development, rent and utility assistance, and housing counseling; 15%), and mental or physical health services (15%). Interestingly, the types of services that individual nonprofit respondents identified as wanting to add did not generally match what they considered unmet needs in the community. For example, in Kensington, for respondents at five of the agencies (the largest group), none of the programs they would add or expand matched what they considered unmet needs in the community. Although beyond the scope of this article to examine, clearly, other factors (e.g., available funding or missions) are at work in deciding what services to provide.”

When we examined the resident responses, we found that they were almost three times more likely than the nonprofit directors to report that they would add youth services (57% of resident respondents). In fact, youth services was such a dominant answer that the residents mentioned few other services. After youth services, the residents’ next most common answer was that they would not add any service (17%), followed by food services (9%) and business services (9%). None of the nonprofit directors mentioned wanting to add a food program, and only 6% mentioned that they would not add any services. Conversely , only 4% of the residents identified job placement and/or training, and the same amount of residents reported they would add educational services. Non-residents mentioned housing services despite the fact that many had mentioned issues related to housing as problems in the interviews. Only 4% mentioned wanting to add physical or mental health programs. In part, the difference in these responses is likely because of residents having a poorer knowledge of what services already exist in the area (Kissane, 2003), but the divergence also likely reflects a disparity in the groups’priorities. Nonprofit directors were concerned with jobs and education, whereas residents worried about the safety of their children after school.”

One neighborhood had a greater proportion of agencies that were more explicit than the others about empowering clients. Despite this fact, these nonprofit directors were no more likely than the other directors were to share similar perceptions with residents.

“The findings we present in this article raise important questions on accountability. A nonprofit organization is accountable when it ‘recognizes that it has made a promise to do something and accepted a moral and legal responsibility to do its best to fulfill that promise’ (Brown & Moore, 2001, p. 570). Part of being accountable may also include facilitating stakeholders’ ability to monitor this promise fulfillment and being responsive to stakeholders’ expectations and demands (Brown & Moore, 2001). More than one third of agency mission statements in our study were explicit in their desire to empower their clients. Although it is not necessarily essential, we assume that to be responsive and empowering nonprofit directors must listen to client needs. Thus, the two groups come to share a similar perspective of the social context and, at the very least, share a similar vision for future program work. We find that the nonprofit directors to whom we talked may not be living up to the latter aspects of accountability if we consider their stakeholders to be disadvantaged individuals residing in their geographic community.4 The nonprofit directors did not share a similar perspective with the community residents on the local neighborhood context or on what services to add.

“Although we cannot draw empirical conclusions that completely account for the difference in responses that we elicited from the two groups (because this question was not the focus of the research), we do offer three possible explanations. First, perhaps the service providers are aware of the perceptions of the residents, disagree with them, and feel their views are correct. Non profit directors may feel that they grasp the larger societal picture that residents do not because of their lack of education and impoverished status. The professional training and education that many directors have may socialize them to have certain views on problems and how to go about solving them (Merton, 1957). Additionally, this training may socialize service providers to think positively (e.g., from a strengths-based perspective) about social environments and to see poor individuals in a nonstigmatizing way that empowers them.

“Second, the nonprofit directors may believe that they are representing the views of all residents when they are actually only representing the views of a small segment of the population (a group we did not interview) or a mythology about resident perceptions. This would be disconcerting, because it would signify a difference in perception and in awareness of their differing views. If successfully serving community residents means being accountable to their needs and opinions, director knowledge of community perceptions is vital.

“A third explanation for the differing perceptions between residents and non-profits could be that a lag time exists where needs and problems in the neighborhoods are constantly shifting (Hemmens et al., 1986). If one of the groups is aware of the new community realities and the other group continues to operate within an older, now distinct, reality framework, then difference emerges. In time, this group may recognize the new reality and shift their opinions.

“Because the problems and unmet needs that the directors identified did not necessarily match up to their current and future program work or to residents’ thoughts or needs, it is likely that other stakeholders (e.g., funders) drive programmatic decisions and how directors view problems. Nonprofits, therefore, although not being responsive to their community stakeholders, may be responsible to stakeholders who control their purse strings and on whom they rely to continue providing consistent services.”

1. This article was prepared collaboration with the publishers, however, any deviations from the original article, intentional or accidental, remain the responsibility of the Nonprofit Quarterly.

2. Rebecca J. Kissane is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. Her research interests include the impact of welfare reform on nonprofits and the role of nonprofits in the lives of poor families. She acted as the project manager and interviewer for the institutional component of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s Project on Devolution and Urban Change in Philadelphia. Jeff Gingerich is assistant professor of sociology at Bluffton College. He worked as an interviewer for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s Project on Devolution and Urban Change in Philadelphia. His research has focused on racial segregation in religious organizations, and currently he is studying the application of restorative justice principles in criminal procedures.

3. For the PDF version of the full text of this article please see: http://www.sagepub.com/NVSQJune04pp311-3334356.pdf . For subscription information see http://www.sagepub.com/journal.aspx?pid=32 and for additional information on NVSQ see http://www.evans.washington.edu/nvsq/.

4. Footnote to original text: “We acknowledge this is a debatable point, as the directors may not see disadvantaged community residents as their stakeholders. Because this was the majority of the nonprofits main clientele, however, one might argue that they are indeed their stakeholders regardless of whom the directors feel accountable ”

Alexander, J., R. Nank, and C. Stivers (1999). Implications of welfare reform: Do nonprofit survival strategies threaten civil society? , 28(4), 452-475.

Brown, L. D., and M. H. Moore (2001). Accountability, strategy, and international nongovernmental organizations. , 30,569-587.

Hemmens, G., C. Hoch, D. Hardina, R. Madsen, and W. Wiewel (1986). Chicago: School of Urban Planning & Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Merton, R. K. (1957). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.