A recent study of concentrated poverty in the U.S., released by the Brookings Institution just this past week, underscores a point: the nonprofit sector and the infrastructure that support it are crucial delivery mechanisms for fighting concentrated poverty and social inequity—and the sources of the most effective policy and program models for state and federal policy-makers to emulate and fund. An increasingly “sector agnostic” philanthropy, as one foundation executive recently put it, ought to listen and put its resources behind the creative, committed nonprofits fighting poverty and the infrastructure organizations behind them.

The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings in conjunction with the Community Affairs Offices of the Federal Reserve System studied 16 communities of “concentrated poverty”—“the tendency, in many corners of the United States, for poor populations to be clustered into very poor communities.” Included as case studies were urban communities such as Little Haiti in Miami, the Central neighborhood in Cleveland, and Milwaukee’s Northwest neighborhood, and rural areas such as Martin County, Kentucky, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and Holmes County, Mississippi.

It is not hard to guess that the generic strategic recommendations in the report call for “improving the neighborhood” (place-based housing and economic development efforts), “expanding opportunity” (linking residents to quality jobs and housing in their regions), and “transforming the neighborhood” (incorporating a socio-economic mix in otherwise desperately and sometimes homogeneously poor communities). The authors call for improvements in schools, housing, employment, and investment—and a terse commentary on “building the capacity of local actors”.

While part of that capacity question addresses the inadequacies in the local governments in these communities, part also implies the necessity of bolstering the nonprofit sector. Why? Two big and compelling reasons:

  • Without a healthy, vigorous, powerful nonprofit sector, disadvantaged and all too frequently disenfranchised residents have little or no advocacy voice about the issues and conditions that they face.
  • Without a nonprofit sector on the ground in these communities, the mechanisms for getting resources placed adequately and accurately to address the challenges of concentrated poverty are simply insufficient.

The subtext of these shortfalls is also twofold: where the nonprofit sector is not paying attention to issues of concentrated poverty and socio-economic deprivation, the prospects for a powerful nonprofit sector are slim; and although foundation grantmaking is only 12% of all charitable giving in the U.S. (and a much small percentage of nonprofit revenues), there is no question that building the capacity of the nonprofit sector to combat concentrated poverty requires a commitment from the overseers of America’s concentrated wealth in tax exempt foundations.

This is why a nonprofit infrastructure is needed, but there is more to the story. Although the authors of this report suggested that these areas of concentrated poverty were characterized by a generally weak and dispirited nonprofit sector, in some of these communities, the vigor of the nonprofit sector combating these conditions was evident—and if it weren’t for the actions of the nonprofits, the dedication of community organizers, and the support from infrastructure organizations, what little progress is being made against these conditions would be so much less:

  • In West Fresno, a community development corporation was obviously instrumental in the creation of a neighborhood shopping center, built contrary to the advice of “experts” who said that the neighborhood could not support new retail services.
  • The report seems to underplay the longstanding accomplishments of the Little Haiti Housing Association in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, though it acknowledges the impressive work of Catholic Charities and various community centers serving the population.
  • The report makes note of the passage of a $5 million bond to finance a comprehensive community revitalization plan for the West Greenville neighborhood, but such plans do not emerge sui generis, but from the organizing of various church and nonprofit efforts in the community.
  • In the combined Old Hill, Six Corners, and South End neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, a collaboration of Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, the Hampden Hampshire Housing Partnership, and Habitat for Humanity have joined forces to create housing for first-time homebuyers.
  • In Holmes County, Mississippi, the West Holmes Community Development Corporation is carrying out a remarkable program integrating sustainable agriculture, youth employment, skills development, and health and nutrition issues – an impressive display of creativity that rivals the best efforts of much better-heeled nonprofits elsewhere in the nation.

What do these case studies teach us about nonprofits, the nonprofit infrastructure, and perhaps about philanthropy?

  1. Compounded Socio-Economic/Nonprofit Isolation: Nearly all of the examples of nonprofits doing anything are nonprofits connected to networks, notably CDCs, community action agencies, and faith-based community developers. Outside of the ability to tap networks, nonprofits in these desperately poor communities are pretty lacking in resources to bring to bear. In concentrated poverty situations, observers typically cite the problem of economic and social isolation as perpetuating poverty. The isolation extends to nonprofits: in many instances, the indigenous nonprofit infrastructure serving these communities is isolated from networks and funders that might be able to help.
  2. Nonprofit Infrastructure in Action: Some very active infrastructure operations help make whatever progress is happening happen. In Cleveland