The Nonprofit Quarterly’s maps of the U.S. nonprofit infrastructure provide a snapshot circa October 2008 of the dynamic and complex community of organizations and initiatives that comprise the national infrastructure of the U.S. nonprofit sector. These maps identify the nonprofit organizations that make up the core of the sector’s infrastructure and list them according to the primary roles they play to support the entire nonprofit sector. These maps feature infrastructure roles and functions (see pages 19–20 for explanations of the 10 infrastructure functions).

So what is the infrastructure of a sector, and why should we care about it? In general, infrastructure is the underlying framework or foundation that supports the activities of a system or community. In a typical city, for example, the physical infrastructure comprises roads and bridges, water and sewer lines, telephone and electrical power lines, and other foundational support structures. In a social community, the infrastructure is the framework that undergirds and supports members’ activities within that community. Each of these key components of the infrastructure addresses one or more aspects of the need to support the effective operation of the overall system or community. Most aspects of an infrastructure are relatively unseen and underappreciated—at least until their disappearance makes clear that they provided an important element of support. And just as communities need an infrastructure to enable them to operate, the nonprofit sector has infrastructure that enables it to operate.

To help clarify relationships in the infrastructure, we have separated the nonprofit infrastructures into two key maps. Map 1 (see foldout) illustrates the set of operating nonprofit organizations that serves one or more infrastructure functions, excluding infrastructure organizations that support the philanthropy segment of the sector (i.e., the funding and grantmaking segment). Map 2 (see foldout) illustrates the set of philanthropy-specific infrastructure organizations, again presented according to role and function.

Organizations that address functions for both segments of the nonprofit community appear on both maps, and this dual role is indicated on each map with an asterisk following the organization’s name.

The two maps illustrate the overlapping roles and relationships of nonprofit infrastructure organizations with Venn diagrams. The boxes on each map indicate the specific infrastructure functions that support the sector, and the appearance of an organization’s name in a box indicates that it is a primary role for the organization. Many organizations serve more than one key role, and organizations that are listed in the overlapping areas of two or more boxes serve the sector in each of these roles.

These maps reflect our best assessment of the most significant roles that each organization serves for the entire nonprofit sector. These judgments are based on information provided by these organizations in their annual reports, Web site home pages, and filings with the IRS. We identify each organization’s primary support roles based on the mission and program information reported in these sources.

It should be noted that many of these organizations provide additional services that complement and advance their primary sector roles, but we have categorized them only by their primary role or function. It is reasonable to assume, for example, that all associations and networks listed in the maps communicate and disseminate information to their members. But these organizations are not listed in the “communication and information dissemination” function unless this role is a key element of their stated organizational purpose.

So too, many infrastructure organizations are integral to the sector but do not appear on these maps because they are not incorporated nonprofit organizations that are national and sector-wide in scope. Because these organizations serve important complementary functions, examples are illustrated separately: one table illustrates infrastructure organizations that are regional or local in nature (see table on page 18); another provides examples of field-specific nonprofit organizations and initiatives (i.e., they work only with nonprofits of a specific mission type, such as those devoted to the environment, education, juvenile justice, etc.). Also included in this table are examples of notable for-profit organizations that are part of the national nonprofit infrastructure (e.g., the Chronicle of Philanthropy); for-profit organizations are not included in the main map. Together, these maps provide a sense of the landscape of the U.S. nonprofit infrastructure (see Map 1 and Map 2 in the foldout section).

Parsing the National Nonprofit Infrastructure

What does it take to keep the nation’s nonprofit sector up and running? There are 10 primary functions or roles that are fundamental to supporting an effective third sector. These functions, which are outlined below, are the basis for our maps of the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector.

Accountability and self-regulation. Organizations serving this function promote accountability, transparency, and performance levels among nonprofits, often through the development of standards, codes of conduct, and benchmarking systems that can be applied by individual nonprofits and the sector at large. These roles—from watchdog functions to engagement and enforcement functions—are implemented with varying degrees of rigor.

Advocacy, policy, and governmental relations. Organizations serving this function represent and provide a voice for a significant segment of the sector in regulatory and policy venues by engaging with and advocating for external constituencies on its behalf. They monitor and participate in the promulgation and implementation of government policy, including the exercise of regulatory powers over the sector and its organizations by all levels of government.

Financial intermediaries. These organizations facilitate the collection and redistribution of financial resources to nonprofit operating organizations. Some do so through combined fund drives to gather funds that are then allocated or distributed through grants; others do so through the arrangement of loans or other financing structures.

Funding organizations. These organizations provide financial resources to nonprofit operating organizations through the distribution of funds from asset pools that they own, manage, and allocate. Some do so through gifts and grants; others through arrangement of loans or other financing arrangements. Most organizations of this type are private foundations and individual donors, but this role includes nonprofits and some for-profits as well.

Donor and resource advisers. Organizations in this category are distinctive intermediaries in that they provide information and advice to assist funding organizations and donors as they implement their roles as funding and financing sources.

Networks and associations. These organizations are vehicles for linking various organizations to address collective interests and, in some cases, to facilitate collective advancement of interest-based or mission-relevant activities. Many of these organizations are membership associations, but this category also includes organizations that range from informal special purpose collaborations to more intensive forms, such as formal alliances and networks.

Workforce development and deployment. These organizations recruit, prepare, educate, develop, and deploy employees and volunteers in the nonprofit sector. Some organizations work with those who are midcareer, others focus on pre-career or early-career training and development.

Education and leadership development. These organizations focus on preparing nonprofit staff for leadership roles in the nonprofit sector. This work may take the form of formal education and training, but it can also take shape through informal activities that help nonprofit leaders serve more effectively (including in executive, board, and other voluntary roles).

Capacity development and technical assistance. Organizations in this category build the capacity of individual nonprofit organizations through management assistance and support, organization development, and other consulting and support services. Often such technical assistance involves an area of specialization, such as capacity building in the areas of governance and board development, fundraising, financial management, and accounting, information systems, marketing and communications, and other specializations.

Research and knowledge management. These organizations engage in research and analysis to inform those in the nonprofit sector. This work includes the production, organization, and distribution of various types and forms of information about the sector and its components.

Communication and information dissemination. These organizations facilitate communication and the dissemination of information among the organizations in the nonprofit sector. They provide opportunities and support tools that help individuals and organizations to develop and share information, intelligence, and knowledge.


The maps featured in this story are based on research conducted at the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership by Erin Nemenoff and Teresa Kwon and are based on the information presented in individual organizations’ Web sites, annual reports, and IRS Form990 and 990PF filings. We would like to thank GuideStar for providing the researchers with access to the GuideStar Web site to gather this data.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved by the Nonprofit Information Networking Association, Boston, MA. Volume 15, Issue 4. Subscribe | buy issue | reprints