Diverse national and cross-national studies have documented “nonprofit sector effects”—demonstrating that aggregate measures of the size and scope of the nonprofit sector (e.g., density, total number, total linkages) in a community have a substantively meaningful influence on outcomes such as violent crime, drug overdoses, happiness, and corporate social responsibility. Why and how does the nonprofit sector in a community produce such effects? Extant studies offer several plausible arguments for why they expect the nonprofit sector to matter, positing four key underlying mechanisms or drivers based on nonprofit attributes: managerialism; interorganizational ties; political engagement and advocacy; and civic engagement and community embeddedness. In this article, we seek to contribute to the literature on nonprofit sector effects by presenting a landscape of formal civil society in the Puget Sound, a region of the United States anchored by the city of Seattle. More specifically, we utilize the context of the Puget Sound to explore the underlying drivers that have been invoked to explain aggregate effects. Our findings indicate that nonprofits indeed are critical civic threads in the organizational tapestry of the Puget Sound. Inequality and social problems nevertheless have accompanied economic growth in recent decades, and these factors are fraying those civic threads and straining the capacity of the nonprofit sector. Although we conclude that the nonprofit sector could generate aggregate effects in the Puget Sound, to some extent the region constitutes an extreme case for addressing the drivers, as the area has a reputation for its vibrant associational life and for its highly educated and politically engaged populace. Comparative analyses consequently will be essential for assessing the distinctiveness of the region and for explaining how different configurations of drivers in local contexts shape nonprofit sector effects.

On the last day of February 2020, the death of a man was reported at a hospital in Kirkland, about ten miles northeast of Seattle. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 fatality in the United States. The Puget Sound region was also where, a month earlier, the first case of COVID-19 was documented in the United States. Within a few days of that initial fatality, dozens of cases and deaths attributable to the coronavirus were reported at nearby long-term care facilities and hospitals. It was the dramatic beginning of the nation’s COVID-19 crisis and the very moment Seattle, the largest city in the region, emerged as an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Until mid-March 2020, the absolute number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Seattle was not surpassed by any other city in the country.

The mass outbreak of the uncontrollable disease and the unprecedented changes caused by the public health crisis exposed the severity of social problems that had been masked by the rapidly growing economy of the region (Balk 2018, 2019, 2022; Trimbach, Fleming, and Biedenweg 2022). Since the 1950s and ’60s, when Boeing and the aerospace industry gained prominence in the region, the Puget Sound has attracted newcomers, a trend that has accelerated even more with Amazon’s hiring frenzy (Puget Sound Regional Council 2022; Hatfield, Kempson, and Ross 2018). Seattle’s population increased 15.7 percent from 2010 to 2016, far exceeding the growth rate of big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, which both saw a population increase of about 5 percent during that time (Hatfield, Kempson, and Ross 2018).

Social problems such as a high cost of living, homelessness, and gentrification unfortunately have accompanied economic and population growth. Seattle’s housing prices have been skyrocketing far beyond the pace of average income, and growing much faster than the national average, which has intensified gentrification in local communities. Between 2016 and 2017, Seattle’s average housing price rose by 13.4 percent, while the average wage increased only 4.8 percent (Hatfield, Kempson, and Ross 2018). The homeless population meanwhile was growing at twice the rate of the population in the region, leading King County to define the problem as a crisis (City of Seattle n.d.). This confluence of trends has contributed to the sentiment that “the ever-increasing concentration of wealth could mean Seattle will become more and more the gilded city of the upper-middle and upper classes” (McGee 2007, 236). The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these dynamics, as it disproportionately affected people of color (POC) and those who were already experiencing racial inequities, poverty, discrimination, and stigmatization (Kamb 2020; Greenstone 2021).

While the COVID-19 pandemic exposed and amplified existing social problems, nonprofits that support communities in the region have struggled to nurture associational activity and secure funding, which has led to staff layoffs (Horvath and Lin 2020; Finchum-Mason, Gugerty, and Barnhart 2021). In 2020 the Washington nonprofit workforce dropped 6 percent. The arts, entertainment, and recreational nonprofits were the hardest hit, losing 38 percent of staff over the course of the year (Washington Nonprofits 2022). Not only has the transmissibility of COVID-19 limited volunteering and other interpersonal interactions that align with the expressive role of nonprofits, extensive and ongoing social unrest have frayed the civic threads that foster collective identity (Finchum-Mason et al. 2020; Trimbach, Fleming, and Biedenweg 2022). In the summer of 2020, unstructured protesters occupied Capitol Hill—one of Seattle’s most popular districts, with entertainment and vibrant nightlife—in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The incident garnered national attention, as it drove police to abandon a local precinct and related protests lasted months (Bush 2020; Groover 2020).

The ongoing social and political turmoil and the outbreak of COVID-19, though, also revealed the importance of nonprofit services and local presence. That is, the regional challenges shone a spotlight on nonprofit support for individuals and communities, and nonprofits’ ongoing commitment to mission has been on display throughout the pandemic (Finchum-Mason et al. 2020; Paarlberg et al. 2020; National Council of Nonprofits 2021). Motivated by the perseverance of these organizations, our article explores how the efforts nonprofits make to carry out their diverse missions in the Puget Sound region can inform research on nonprofit sector effects—which indicates that nonprofits shape a striking variety of outcomes including violent crime, civic action, environmental regulation, entrepreneurship, happiness, rights reform, corporate social responsibility, and government accountability (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000; Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui 2005; Sampson et al. 2005; Drori, Yong Jang, and Meyer 2006; Lim and Tsutsui 2012; Kwon, Heflin, and Ruef 2013; Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017; Brandtner and Suárez 2021; Ressler et al. 2021).

As an emerging global city that is struggling to manage its rapid growth and meet the increasing demands of its diverse stakeholders, Seattle offers insights into mechanisms of nonprofit sector effects that may be at work in other urban contexts—within the United States as well as around the world (Meyer et al. 1997; Anheier, Lang, and Toepler 2020; Dupuy and Prakash 2020). This economically vibrant city is compelled to provide consistent and cooperative solutions for myriad and complex social problems that result from its own context, yet the extent to which national and local dynamics drive nonprofit sector effects is unclear. Studying how the growing nonprofit sector of Seattle and its surrounding region (Washington Nonprofits 2022) responds to social demands and institutional pressures can begin to illuminate the drivers of nonprofit sector effects and solidify the foundation for comparative research on the civic life of cities (Bloodgood et al. 2022; Shier, Handy, and Turpin 2022).

When we utilize the term “nonprofit sector effects,” we refer to research that assesses how the nonprofit sector—in the aggregate—shapes a given outcome. Although this body of literature has generated many provocative findings, ongoing efforts to define and map nonprofit sectors—at local, national, and global levels—highlight the need for quality data on the broad range of nonprofit roles, activities, missions, strategies, and capacities that can be compared across contexts (Grønbjerg 1989; Salamon and Anheier 1997; Never 2011; Appe 2012, 2013; Anheier, Lang, and Toepler 2020). How can evidence of extensive nonprofit sector effects be reconciled with the observation that scholars “still understand little about the usefulness of the sector to improve the lives of individuals beyond the discrete impacts of individual programs” (Ressler et al. 2021, 832)? Our core argument is that nonprofit sector effects are undertheorized, particularly with respect to the multiplicity of underlying drivers and their potential consequences.

Because of data limitations, empirical studies of nonprofit sector effects typically are obligated to assess nuanced arguments with a very broad and rough indicator. The specific indicator varies in the literature, as some studies emphasize the size of the sector (usually as a count or a per capita density), some emphasize the scope of the sector (usually as a count of ties, linkages, or memberships), and yet others emphasize a composite indicator. The key commonality is that all are highly aggregated measures of the nonprofit sector deployed to capture the effect of some underlying driver or mechanism. We suggest that there are at least four plausible drivers or mechanisms of nonprofit sector effects that (a) can overlap or conflict and (b) may not always produce consistent effects across time or outcome: managerialism; interorganizational ties; political engagement and advocacy; and civic engagement and relational embeddedness. We present a landscape of nonprofits in the Puget Sound, with the aim of shedding light on these drivers and developing theory on the influence of the nonprofit sector.

The following section describes the research site and our data collection efforts; we proceed in this manner since we have already introduced the Puget Sound informally. We then discuss nonprofit sector effects, and the drivers of those effects, in greater detail. The subsequent section explores our data, which provides considerable evidence for multiple drivers of nonprofit sector effects in the Puget Sound region and also surfaces many questions about how those drivers intersect. We then conclude by establishing an agenda for future research, emphasizing that comparative analyses are necessary for assessing the distinctiveness of the region and for explaining how different configurations of drivers in local contexts shape nonprofit sector effects.

The Puget Sound, named after the estuary, is a vibrant and rapidly changing region of Washington state. The regional economy is best known for its natural resource, aerospace, and technology industries, represented by large employers such as Weyerhaeuser, Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon. In addition to its reputation for constant rain, strong coffee, and progressive political activism, the Puget Sound is widely recognized as the birthplace of grunge music, which gave rise to popular bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Seattle is the largest city in the region, both by population and by economic impact, and the tremendous influx of people into the city over the last decade has been a primary contributor to making the region one of the fastest growing in the country (Trimbach, Fleming, and Biedenweg 2022).

Figure 1. Puget Sound region (Seattle-Tacoma Combined Statistical Area).

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2012).

Figure 1. Puget Sound region (Seattle-Tacoma Combined Statistical Area).

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2012).

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There are many aspects of the Puget Sound that make it rather distinctive, including pioneering public sector initiatives to promote social justice and equity (King County n.d.; City of Seattle n.d.). Widely perceived as a liberal “Left Coast” city, Seattle was also the first major city in the United States to pass a minimum wage ordinance reaching $15 per hour (Gregory 2016; Allard et al. 2020; Romich et al. 2020). Moreover, Seattle recently participated in a study of the civic health of fifty-one American cities, and it ranked in the top ten in nineteen of twenty-six categories (Seattle CityClub 2017). These kinds of citywide efforts in support of social justice and equity are even more striking when considering the methodological approaches utilized by the region’s public sector. The public sector in the Puget Sound is known for its outcome-driven approaches that are informed by research. For example, King County, the largest county in the Puget Sound, has focused on reducing inequities among youth and those in early childhood by gathering and analyzing data. Nonprofits in the region, and King County more specifically, are actively involved in addressing these and other issues by collaborating with public agencies (Barber 2015; Finchum-Mason et al. 2020; Finchum-Mason, Gugerty, and Barnhart 2021).

According to a recent report, more than thirty thousand public charities in Washington are registered at the federal level with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and approximately one-quarter of those have paid staff (Finchum-Mason et al. 2020). Many of these organizations provide just limited information about their operations to the IRS, however, if at all. Based on data compiled by the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), approximately ten thousand nonprofits submitted a full IRS Form 990 in the state of Washington in 2015, two-thirds of which are based in the Puget Sound (NCCS 2015). Nonprofits in federal data typically are categorized into eight major service groups (arts, education, environment, health, human services, international, public benefit, and religion), and the distribution of these organizations in the Puget Sound aligns closely with the distribution in the broader state.

Approximately 30 percent are human service organizations, the largest group, followed by education (17 percent), the arts (12 percent), and health (8 percent). Most of these organizations are very small, with a median budget of approximately $120,000. To provide some context for comparison, recent data indicates that median household income in King County is approximately $95,000 (King County n.d.). Some of the largest nonprofits in the region reported more than a billion dollars in revenues and expenditures, including Virginia Mason Medical Center, World Vision, and Seattle Children’s Hospital. The Puget Sound also is home to the largest private foundation in the United States, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as one of the largest public foundations, the Seattle Community Foundation.

Sampling and Data Collection

To establish clear boundaries for our study, we defined the Puget Sound region as the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia Combined Statistical Area (CSA). This area, designated by the US Census Bureau, includes nine counties and constitutes a broad “imagined community” for the Puget Sound region. Then, in late 2018, we used the 2015 NCCS Core File, a publicly available dataset of nonprofits that filed an IRS Form 990 in that year, to draw a random sample of 600 nonprofits in the Puget Sound region. The next step was to collect as much current information as we could on each organization, with the expectation that all 600 organizations would be in our final sample. Unfortunately, 178 nonprofits were totally dormant (they reported no revenues or expenditures, and extensive internet searches did not reveal recent activity). These organizations were excluded, and as a result our final sample consisted of 422 nonprofits.

After finalizing the sample, we collaborated with teams conducting research on nonprofits in other contexts to develop the survey instrument. Our research project aligns with other projects that map nonprofit activity, particularly efforts to discern the “civic footprint” of the sector in a community (Shier, Handy, and Turpin 2022). A distinguishing feature of our project is that we are part of an international initiative on the “Civic Life of Cities,” with participation from teams representing the San Francisco Bay Area, United States; Vienna, Austria; Shenzhen, China; Sydney, Australia; and Singapore (a city-state). The development of the survey instrument was an iterative process, and the teams agreed to have a common set of questions but not an identical survey. Our survey covered an extensive range of topics, including leadership, governance, human resources (staff and volunteers), finance, operations, performance management, civic engagement, advocacy, and collaboration. After completing this process, we reviewed the public data we collected on the nonprofits in our sample to determine the best strategy for recruitment.

Since we were able to identify an email address for most nonprofits, we decided to implement the survey online using Qualtrics. Survey implementation took a little over a year, with the first survey completed in July, 2019, and the last completed in August, 2020. The length of the implementation process was due primarily to COVID-19, which led to a shutdown of all nonessential services in Washington, when we had completed just 70 interviews. The pandemic necessitated a significant pause in the recruitment of participants in early 2021, but we eventually collected another 94 complete survey responses. Overall, there were 192 survey respondents, and 164 completed the survey. Based on the 422 organizations that we attempted to contact, the response rate for completed surveys was 39 percent (164/422), and the survey response was 45 percent (192/422) if we include partially complete surveys.1

Our approach to sampling and data collection has many strengths, but it also has several weaknesses worth noting. To begin with, we focus on formal organizations, which means that informal civil society organizations are not included in our analysis; we limited our sample to formal organizations because they were easier to identify and compare across contexts. Second, the “who” of nonprofit sector mapping matters, and as academic researchers, we might not study nonprofits in the same way or for the same purposes as other groups (Appe 2012). A third weakness, one that we could not foresee or mitigate, is that data collection was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic; we collected some data before and some data during the pandemic. Finally, we critique empirical studies on nonprofit sector effects for utilizing aggregate measures that lack detail on what nonprofits do, but our own study is not nearly as detailed as qualitative research involving repeated site visits or participant observation.

Nonprofits (or NGOs), formal organizations that register with the government, make diverse and meaningful contributions to the communities they serve. To begin with, nonprofits are innovators and social entrepreneurs that provide distinctive services, often because those services are not profitable enough for businesses or because they are too particularistic for governments—core explanations for their role in a market economy (Frumkin 2005; Steinberg 2017; Moulton and Eckerd 2012). Examples abound in the Puget Sound region, like the nonprofit that helps individuals with disabilities “lead more enriched lives through adaptive horseback riding” and the charitable group that provides “affordable, convenient, and safe housing for transplant patients, and for patients who are immune-suppressed or immune-compromised.” Even when nonprofits’ services are not entirely unique, those that need assistance do not always trust governments or businesses, and nonprofits sometimes present a meaningful alternative or act as “partners in public service” (Smith and Lipsky 1993; Salamon 1995; Young 2000).

Nonprofits also support their communities through expressive activity (Frumkin 2005; Moulton and Eckerd 2012). Nonprofits pursue social change by mobilizing stakeholders and by representing their interests (Guo and Musso 2007; Prakash and Gugerty 2010; Mosley 2011; Han 2014; Fyall 2016; Hwang and Suárez 2019). In addition, nonprofits play several associational roles: bringing people together in ways that build trust and generate social cohesion (i.e., social capital); enabling individuals to express their values; modeling democratic behaviors and processes; and fostering local participation through volunteerism (Salamon and Anheier 1998; Clemens 2006; Grønbjerg and Prakash 2017; Brandtner and Dunning 2020; Horvath and Lin 2020; Suárez 2020). Here again, examples in the Puget Sound are plentiful, such as the nonprofit that creates “an inclusive community by promoting confidence, leadership, and social justice through skateboarding” and the NGO that promotes “public access to arts, heritage, and science activities through advocacy, resource development, education, and coalition building.”

Although nonprofits can and often do make an important difference in the lives of their stakeholders, the sector is extraordinarily diverse (Anheier and Toepler 2020; Powell and Bromley 2020). Nonprofit missions differ markedly even within the same field (i.e., health, education), and considerable variation exists regarding nonprofit strategy, management, governance, programming, expressive activity, and many other organizational dimensions (Theiss-Morse and Hibbing 2005; Hwang and Powell 2009; Eliasoph 2011; Maier, Meyer, and Steinbereithner 2016; Brandtner and Laryea 2022). Why, then, might the total number of nonprofits in a community be relevant for outcomes like violent crime, citizen happiness, and environmental regulation, particularly when relatively few nonprofits in the sector have any direct involvement in addressing these issues? We do not question the methodological rigor of extant research on nonprofit sector effects, but an examination of key drivers that have been discussed in the literature elucidates our core argument that those effects are undertheorized.

Managerialism, for instance, has come to be associated with “the notion of NPOs [nonprofit organizations] becoming business-like”—a plausible driver (Maier, Meyer, and Steinbereithner 2016, 69). Most of the empirical research on nonprofit sector effects makes at least an implicit argument that the quality of services matters for substantive outcomes. Put differently, these studies do not claim that nonprofit activity is irrelevant and that simply creating more nonprofits in a community (i.e., quantity) will cause reductions in crime or increases in happiness and civic action (Sampson et al. 2005; Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017; Ressler et al. 2021). If managerialism reflects capacity, then nonprofit sector effects presumably should be more likely in communities with higher levels of nonprofit managerialism. Measures like the number of nonprofits in a community clearly do capture something important, as extensive quantitative research shows that they are relevant for many outcomes, but the role of managerialism as an underlying driver of the pattern is not so clear-cut.

While some studies find that managerialism has a positive influence on aspects of performance, others claim that managerialism constitutes a “rationalized myth” that tends to be loosely coupled with outcomes like efficiency or effectiveness, and some research even indicates that managerialism generates mission drift by incentivizing nonprofits to concentrate their services on beneficiaries with resources instead of beneficiaries with challenging needs (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Smith and Lipsky 1993; Drori, Meyer, and Hwang 2009; Hwang and Suárez 2019; Donnelly-Cox, Meyer, and Wijkström 2021; Brandtner and Laryea 2022). Taken together, this literature demonstrates that managerialism can have unintended consequences, and more generally that it does not necessarily strengthen nonprofits and benefit communities, implying an ambiguous relationship between managerialism and nonprofit sector effects (Hwang and Powell 2009; Barman and MacIndoe 2012; Maier, Meyer, and Steinbereithner 2016).

A second plausible underlying driver of nonprofit sector effects is interorganizational ties. The depth and breadth of interorganizational ties have grown so dramatically over the last few decades that partnerships, collaborations, and networks have become central to management within and across all societal sectors (Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012; Bryson, Crosby, and Stone 2015; Cheng 2018; Marwell, Marantz, and Baldassarri 2020; Marwell and Brown 2020). Associated research has identified many different instrumental purposes for those ties, from service provision, marketing, and fundraising to civic engagement and advocacy. This body of work demonstrates that the motivations for establishing ties are just as diverse, as some organizations collaborate to mitigate risk while others do so to gain resources or legitimacy (Galaskiewicz 1985; Powell, Koput, and Smith-Doerr 1996; Selsky and Parker 2005). But what does the growth of interorganizational ties, and their various purposes and motivations, mean for nonprofit sector effects?

As with managerialism, if the number of nonprofit ties to other organizations serves as a proxy for capacity—perhaps some sort of collective ability to tackle complex social problems by working across organizational boundaries—then nonprofit sector effects presumably would be more likely in communities with higher levels of ties. A difficulty with this argument is that more ties might just reflect the extensiveness of problems in a community, not the ability of nonprofits to address them. Moreover, much of the literature emphasizes the challenges associated with interorganizational ties, finding that collaborations require significant investments of time and energy—and frequently fail to achieve their desired results (Bryson, Crosby, and Stone 2015). Given the significant challenges associated with collaboration and the broad range of (purposes of and motivations for) nonprofit linkages, we would not expect a consistent relationship between interorganizational ties and nonprofit sector effects.

A third plausible underlying driver or mechanism of aggregate effects is political engagement and advocacy. Although public charities traditionally have been associated with service provision and not advocacy, the distinctions between advocacy organizations and nonprofit service providers have diminished over time (Minkoff 1994; Fyall 2016; Grønbjerg and Prakash 2017; Suárez 2020). These changes are evident in the United States, due in part to “politicization” from the growth of public sector contracting (Mosley 2011, 2012; Pekkanen and Smith 2014; Fyall 2016). This pattern, though, is relevant at the international level too—exemplified by “rights-based” approaches to development and the growing involvement of (and backlash to) humanitarian organizations in social change activity (Prakash and Gugerty 2010; Bloodgood and Tremblay-Boire 2011; Dupuy and Prakash 2020).

Nonprofit advocacy and citizen political engagement can be a sign of a healthy democracy, and if aggregate measures of the nonprofit sector act as a proxy, then nonprofit sector effects presumably should be more likely in communities with more nonprofit activity of this nature (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000; Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui 2005; Drori, Yong Jang, and Meyer 2006; Han 2014). As with the other drivers discussed already, the argument is reasonable but built on an unstable foundation, as few studies have compared nonprofit political networks across multiple contexts (Baldassarri and Diani 2007). Efforts to restrict nonprofit advocacy in some countries suggests that the relationship between political engagement and nonprofit sector effects could be problematic and contingent, and a more direct weakness of the argument is that advocacy and political engagement might reflect polarization and deep social cleavages, not robust pluralism (Dupuy and Prakash 2020; Marwell, Marantz, and Baldassarri 2020).

Civic engagement and relational embeddedness constitute a final plausible driver of nonprofit sector effects (Clemens 2006; Small 2006, 2009; Han 2014; Cheng 2018; Longhofer, Negro, and Roberts 2018; Horvath and Lin 2020). Like advocacy and political participation, civic engagement and relational embeddedness can be an important sign of community health, which helps to explain why research on the topic in the United States is preoccupied with the persistent decline in the total number of associations—and individual memberships in them (Putnam 1995; Paxton 1999; Skocpol 2003). Social capital is an important concept in this line of work, defined as “features of social organizations, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti 1994, 167). If aggregate measures of the nonprofit sector capture social capital, then nonprofit sector effects presumably should be more likely in communities with more nonprofit activity.

While the argument is reasonable, most studies infer but do not demonstrate the associational activities that produce nonprofit sector effects—for instance, by showing relationships among nonprofits via overlapping individual memberships or demonstrating greater “generalized trust” among individuals in communities with many nonprofits (Paxton 1999, 2007; Zoorob and Salemi 2017; Makridis and Wu 2021). A recent study noted that this limitation can be attributed to “the challenges in finding adequate data on such organizations and in specifying exactly what community organizations do” (Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017, 1235). The primary difficulty with this approach nevertheless is that not all civil society is “good” civil society, meaning that some nonprofits exclude or discriminate when they bring people together, and some seek to divide communities through their civic activity (Chambers and Kopstein 2001; Theiss-Morse and Hibbing 2005; Eliasoph 2011; Lichterman and Eliasoph 2014).

In sum, there is widespread agreement that the nonprofit sector “has had an impact on the lives of people, although which people, how much impact, and when did this impact occur, are still important questions that are left to be answered” (Never 2011, 175). The extant literature has identified several plausible drivers of nonprofit sector effects, yet the lack of detailed data on nonprofit activity prohibits most empirical studies from testing their arguments directly or across multiple contexts (Appe 2013; Anheier, Lang, and Toepler 2020; Bloodgood et al. 2022; Shier, Handy, and Turpin 2022). Beyond the lack of definitive explanations for nonprofit sector effects, this body of work has not engaged fully with the ambiguities associated with each driver or the possibility that multiple drivers might be operating and perhaps undermining (rather than reinforcing) one another. We aim to shed light on these drivers and develop theory on the influence of the nonprofit sector by exploring the landscape of nonprofits in the Puget Sound.

We present descriptive statistics and illustrative quotes from nonprofit leaders in relation to the four drivers we discussed above. We begin with managerialism, followed by interorganizational ties. We turn to political engagement and advocacy next, and then we present our findings for civic engagement and relational embeddedness.

Managerialism

Table 1 focuses on professionalization, an important dimension of managerialism that refers to the growing reliance on paid staff as well as the increasing emphasis on academic credentials and other forms of specialized training (Smith and Lipsky 1993; Hwang and Powell 2009; Brandtner and Laryea 2022). The table demonstrates that, on average, the executive director, the staff, and the board of nonprofits in the Puget Sound have at least an undergraduate university degree (a BA or higher), and almost half of the executive directors have a postgraduate degree (an MA or higher). Table 1 also shows that almost 80 percent of the executive directors and their staff pursued recent training (workshops) in management topics like strategic planning and fundraising. Finally, the table suggests that nonprofits rely extensively on volunteer support. Slightly less than 60 percent of nonprofits are led by an executive director who is paid and works full time for the organization, 85 percent recruit volunteers, and nonprofits rated the importance of volunteers as very high (5.9 on a scale from 1 to 7).

Table 1. Professionalization of Human Resources (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Education  
Executive director (BA or higher) 82.3 
Executive director (MA or higher) 49.4 
Staff (BA or higher) 56.1 
Board (BA or higher) 64.6 
Training (workshops)  
Executive director 83.5 
Staff 79.3 
Implementation  
Executive director paid and full-time 59.2 
Staff full-time 37.4 
Volunteer recruitment 85.4 
Volunteer importance (1–7) 5.9 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Education  
Executive director (BA or higher) 82.3 
Executive director (MA or higher) 49.4 
Staff (BA or higher) 56.1 
Board (BA or higher) 64.6 
Training (workshops)  
Executive director 83.5 
Staff 79.3 
Implementation  
Executive director paid and full-time 59.2 
Staff full-time 37.4 
Volunteer recruitment 85.4 
Volunteer importance (1–7) 5.9 

Table 2 attends to rationalization, a dimension of managerialism that captures the concerted efforts of nonprofits to respond to their institutional environment by adopting a growing array of “best practices” and management tools (Barman and MacIndoe 2012; Maier, Meyer, and Steinbereithner 2016; Donnelly-Cox, Meyer, and Wijkström 2021). The table reveals that nearly 80 percent of nonprofits have created at least one common management role or position, such as a program manager or data analyst. Moreover, of the eleven positions we inquired about, nonprofits had more than four, on average. Furthermore, almost every nonprofit adopted at least one of the nine practices listed in Table 2, adopting more than six on average. The tables for professionalization and rationalization provide considerable evidence of managerialism, enough for us to assert that a relationship between managerialism and nonprofit sector effects is credible for the Puget Sound region.

Table 2. Rationalization of Management Positions and Practices (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Positions/roles  
Data analyst 14.6 
Web designer 54.3 
Fundraiser / grant writer 56.1 
Accountant 64.6 
Lobbyist 17.1 
Social media 45.7 
Public relations 44.5 
Legal counsel 32.9 
Human resources 26.2 
Program manager 37.2 
Program evaluator 24.4 
Any activity (role) 79.3 
Activity mean (0–11) 4.2 
Practices/artifacts  
Mission statement 98.2 
Strategic plan 76.8 
Annual budget 95.7 
Annual report 77.4 
Financial audit 59.2 
Quantitative program evaluation 50.6 
Collect feedback (surveys or focus groups) 62.2 
Personnel evaluation 62.2 
Consultants 65.2 
Any activity (practices/artifacts) 99.4 
Activity mean (0–9) 6.5 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Positions/roles  
Data analyst 14.6 
Web designer 54.3 
Fundraiser / grant writer 56.1 
Accountant 64.6 
Lobbyist 17.1 
Social media 45.7 
Public relations 44.5 
Legal counsel 32.9 
Human resources 26.2 
Program manager 37.2 
Program evaluator 24.4 
Any activity (role) 79.3 
Activity mean (0–11) 4.2 
Practices/artifacts  
Mission statement 98.2 
Strategic plan 76.8 
Annual budget 95.7 
Annual report 77.4 
Financial audit 59.2 
Quantitative program evaluation 50.6 
Collect feedback (surveys or focus groups) 62.2 
Personnel evaluation 62.2 
Consultants 65.2 
Any activity (practices/artifacts) 99.4 
Activity mean (0–9) 6.5 

Some of the leaders we interviewed nevertheless highlight the ambiguity in a driver like managerialism, like the leader of an education nonprofit who questioned the growing reliance on impact measurement: “Sometimes you just can’t quantify ‘success’ for a child—for example, if a funder is looking for hard data on improved attendance outcomes, it doesn’t necessarily show in the numbers. Each student has a story, maybe they are working full-time to help out the family, taking care of siblings or any other number of obligations which keep them out of school. But they still graduate on time so that is the success.” If nonprofits embrace managerialism just to respond to donor demands, then a link with nonprofit sector effects is less likely than if they do so to strengthen their programs and service delivery.

Interorganizational Collaboration

Our findings for nonprofits in the Puget Sound also confirm the prevalence of interorganizational ties. According to the survey results, almost 80 percent of our nonprofits collaborated with another nonprofit. Table 3 provides descriptive statistics on collaboration observed in the nonprofits, demonstrating variation in ties across sectors as well as differences in the purposes of collaboration. Beginning with collaboration by sector, our data indicate that nonprofits are much more likely to collaborate with other nonprofits than with organizations in other sectors—and that collaboration within the sector is very common. The most common purposes were service provision (60 percent) and cohosting events (48 percent).

Table 3. Collaborative Activities, by Sector and Overall (N=164)
 Nonprofit (%) Foundation (%) Government (%) Business (%) Any Sector (%) 
Advocacy 37.2 5.5 11.6 5.5 42.7 
Capacity 33.5 15.9 12.2 8.5 42.7 
Commercial 5.5 1.8 8.0 11.0 
Events 47.6 12.2 13.4 24.4 58.5 
Services 60.4 11.6 24.4 20.7 70.1 
Volunteering 35.4 6.7 10.4 14.6 41.0 
Any activity (collaborate) 79.3 28.1 34.8 40.2 82.3 
Activity mean (0–6) 2.2 .5 .7 .8 2.7 
 Nonprofit (%) Foundation (%) Government (%) Business (%) Any Sector (%) 
Advocacy 37.2 5.5 11.6 5.5 42.7 
Capacity 33.5 15.9 12.2 8.5 42.7 
Commercial 5.5 1.8 8.0 11.0 
Events 47.6 12.2 13.4 24.4 58.5 
Services 60.4 11.6 24.4 20.7 70.1 
Volunteering 35.4 6.7 10.4 14.6 41.0 
Any activity (collaborate) 79.3 28.1 34.8 40.2 82.3 
Activity mean (0–6) 2.2 .5 .7 .8 2.7 

Besides collaborating more with other nonprofits than with organizations in other sectors, nonprofits also worked with each other on a greater variety of activities, collaborating on more than two activities (the range was zero to six), on average. The next most popular sector for collaboration was the business sector, with more than 40 percent of nonprofits indicating that they worked with a for-profit corporation. Interestingly, services (24 percent) and events (20 percent) were the most common reasons or purposes for collaboration, and only 8 percent of nonprofits mentioned that they worked with businesses for commercial purposes. Nearly 35 percent also stated that they collaborated with public agencies, demonstrating that “partners in public service” is much more than a catchy label for nonprofit-government relationships (Salamon 1995). Consistent with the results for other sectors, the most common purpose for collaboration with government was services (24 percent) and events (13 percent). The sector that nonprofits collaborate with least is foundations, at 28 percent, and the primary purpose is distinctive—the main reason listed was capacity development (16 percent).

Overall, 82 percent of nonprofits indicated that they collaborated with another organization, but on average, nonprofits collaborated with foundations, governments, and businesses on less than one activity (.5, .7, and .8, respectively). While some nonprofits collaborate with organizations in several sectors for many purposes, most collaborations are with other nonprofits, and cross-sector collaborations tend to be defined narrowly. Despite the variations and challenges related to partnerships, an education nonprofit in our sample illustrates the sort of interorganizational tie that might contribute to nonprofit sector effects: “For more than 40 years, our nonprofit organization has collaborated with families, schools, and community partners to engage children and prepare them for school and life success. Working together, we will ensure every child has equitable access to quality care and educational resources.” We would expect nonprofit sector effects to be more likely as the number of nonprofits that engage in longitudinal, multisector collaborations increases.

Not all interorganizational ties are alike, of course, as some nonprofits in the Puget Sound collaborate for grand purposes such as “equitable access to quality care and educational resources” and others partner for everyday operations such as sharing offices or introducing potential clients or beneficiaries to another nonprofit. The president of a men’s rowing club in Seattle, for instance, told us that the organization’s members share a boathouse with another rowing club and frequently practice rowing together as a response to our request to describe their interorganizational partnership experience. The executive director of a faith-based human service nonprofit in Puyallup answered that “Churches are not trained for social service delivery, but they have people in need of our support and know where we can find those people. So, we work with them.” These stories, accompanied by our survey findings, indicate that even less intensive forms of collaboration could amplify the influence that nonprofits have as resource brokers in a community (Small 2006, 2009).

Political Engagement and Advocacy

Tables 4 and 5 provide descriptive statistics on advocacy and political engagement in our sample. Beginning with advocacy activities and goals, Table 4 attends to the advocacy activities that nonprofits undertake in a direct manner (Guo and Musso 2007; Mosley 2012; Fyall 2016; Mosley, Suárez, and Hwang 2022). The table demonstrates that advocacy is a core component of the nonprofit repertoire in the region, a central activity for achieving mission. Nearly 80 percent of nonprofits mention that they work to develop standards in their domain or provide a public voice for a group or topic. In addition, well over half of the nonprofits issue public statements or speak at public workshops. Though less common, many nonprofits hosted a public meeting, and a few even organized a rally or march. Overall, 91 percent indicated that they participate in at least one of the six activities we listed, and on average they were involved in more than three.

Table 4. Advocacy Activities / Goals (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Developing standards in organizational domain 78.1 
Being a public voice for a group or topic 76.8 
Speaking at public workshops 68.3 
Issuing public statements 59.2 
Hosting public meeting or hearing 15.2 
Hosting rally, organization, or march 3.1 
Any activity (goals) 90.9 
Activity mean (0–6) 3.0 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Developing standards in organizational domain 78.1 
Being a public voice for a group or topic 76.8 
Speaking at public workshops 68.3 
Issuing public statements 59.2 
Hosting public meeting or hearing 15.2 
Hosting rally, organization, or march 3.1 
Any activity (goals) 90.9 
Activity mean (0–6) 3.0 

Table 5 demonstrates how nonprofits in the Puget Sound foster social change indirectly, by spurring individuals to participate in the policy process (Han 2014). As the table shows, approximately half of our nonprofits encourage people to attend public meetings or discuss their advocacy causes with others. Furthermore, nearly 40 percent encourage individuals to vote in elections or contact their government representatives. Besides these activities that constitute participation in the formal aspects of the policy process, conventional approaches to social change, some nonprofits also encouraged individuals to participate using more contentious tactics—activities that tend to be associated with social movements (Minkoff 1994; Sampson et al. 2005; Clemens 2006). For instance, nearly 16 percent endorsed participation in rallies, 11 percent told people to sign petitions, nearly 8 percent spurred individuals to mobilize others by organizing rallies themselves, and a few even endorsed boycotts.

Table 5. Promotion of Political Civic Activity (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Vote in elections 39 
Run for public office 7.9 
Organize a rally 7.9 
Participate in a rally 15.9 
Attend public meetings 49.4 
Boycott brands or products 3.1 
Sign petition 11 
Contact government representatives 39 
Discuss the organization's causes with others 53.7 
Any activity (political engagement) 71.3 
Activity mean (0–9) 2.3 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Vote in elections 39 
Run for public office 7.9 
Organize a rally 7.9 
Participate in a rally 15.9 
Attend public meetings 49.4 
Boycott brands or products 3.1 
Sign petition 11 
Contact government representatives 39 
Discuss the organization's causes with others 53.7 
Any activity (political engagement) 71.3 
Activity mean (0–9) 2.3 

Illustrating the importance of advocacy, an animal rights group clarified that it achieves its mission “by pursuing campaigns, facilitating education, and connecting Pacific Northwest organizations.” It goes on to state that “Our efforts include outreach, demonstrations, litigation, and educational events. We also advocate that veganism is the best and most consistent way to respect the lives of animals.” Although advocacy could generate social conflict and division, nonprofits exist as an important organizational vehicle through which diverse constituencies express their preferences and needs to government. Our findings offer clear evidence of nonprofits’ extensive engagement in advocacy, with more than 90 percent of the nonprofits we surveyed engaging in the activity. Our descriptive data and comments from leaders demonstrate that nonprofits play an important role in democratic governance and community representation, suggesting that advocacy could contribute to nonprofit sector effects in the Puget Sound.

Civic Engagement and Relational Embeddedness

Tables 6 and 7 provide descriptive statistics on civic engagement and relational embeddedness in our sample. Table 6 focuses on how nonprofits involve volunteers and beneficiaries in operational practices, which we treat as an aspect of relational embeddedness (Cheng 2018; Longhofer, Negro, and Roberts 2018; Horvath and Lin 2020). As the table shows, 43 percent of nonprofits involve volunteers in any of the eight practices we asked about, and on average volunteers were involved in less than one. Still, more than 15 percent of nonprofits involved volunteers in initiating new projects, communicating with the public, maintaining social media, and updating the organizational website. The numbers were lower with respect to the involvement of beneficiaries, with 21 percent of nonprofits involving beneficiaries in any practice; the most common was soliciting input about new projects (10 percent).

Table 6. Participation of Volunteers and Beneficiaries in Operational Practices (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Volunteers Beneficiaries 
Selecting executive staff 6.1 5.5 
Initiating new projects 18.3 9.8 
Editing mission or vision statement 7.3 6.1 
Creating strategic plan 8.5 7.3 
Making annual budget 4.3 1.2 
Communicating to the public 18.3 2.4 
Maintaining social media 17.7 2.4 
Updating website 15.2 1.8 
Any activity (practices) 42.7 20.7 
Activity mean (0–8) 0.96 0.37 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Volunteers Beneficiaries 
Selecting executive staff 6.1 5.5 
Initiating new projects 18.3 9.8 
Editing mission or vision statement 7.3 6.1 
Creating strategic plan 8.5 7.3 
Making annual budget 4.3 1.2 
Communicating to the public 18.3 2.4 
Maintaining social media 17.7 2.4 
Updating website 15.2 1.8 
Any activity (practices) 42.7 20.7 
Activity mean (0–8) 0.96 0.37 

Table 7 attends more specifically to the efforts of nonprofits to encourage civic behaviors and foster forms of social interaction and cohesion. The table reveals that service-providing public charities undertake many civic activities—regardless of whether they have members (Putnam 1995; Paxton 1999; Skocpol 2003). In fact, more than 80 percent promote regular interactions and host group gatherings (with staff, volunteers, or members), and more than 80 percent also seek to build beneficiary trust. In addition, more than 30 percent host recreational activities (like community baseball games and other sporting events), and almost a quarter (24 percent) host community festivals or ethnic celebrations. Overall, almost every nonprofit in the Puget Sound is involved in at least one “social interaction” activity, and on average nonprofits undertake about five kinds of social interaction activities out of nine.

Table 7. Promotion of Apolitical Civic Activity and Social Interaction (N=164)
 Nonprofits (%) 
Civic Activity  
Start a new organization 8.5 
Volunteer for or join other organizations 42.1 
Donate to or raise funds for other organizations 27.4 
Author newspaper articles and op-eds 28.7 
Write blog posts 22.6 
Post about organization on social media 56.7 
Any activity (civic) 72.0 
Activity mean (0–6) 2.4 
Social Interaction  
Promote regular interactions 80.5 
Build beneficiary trust 86.6 
Retreat for staff, volunteers, or members 57.3 
Group gatherings with staff, volunteers, or members 80.5 
Recreational activities 31.7 
Charity event or fundraiser 58.5 
Community festival or ethnic celebration 24.4 
Conference, lecture, talk, panel 33.5 
Organization-sponsored volunteer work days 25.0 
Any activity (interaction) 97.6 
Activity mean (0–9) 4.8 
 Nonprofits (%) 
Civic Activity  
Start a new organization 8.5 
Volunteer for or join other organizations 42.1 
Donate to or raise funds for other organizations 27.4 
Author newspaper articles and op-eds 28.7 
Write blog posts 22.6 
Post about organization on social media 56.7 
Any activity (civic) 72.0 
Activity mean (0–6) 2.4 
Social Interaction  
Promote regular interactions 80.5 
Build beneficiary trust 86.6 
Retreat for staff, volunteers, or members 57.3 
Group gatherings with staff, volunteers, or members 80.5 
Recreational activities 31.7 
Charity event or fundraiser 58.5 
Community festival or ethnic celebration 24.4 
Conference, lecture, talk, panel 33.5 
Organization-sponsored volunteer work days 25.0 
Any activity (interaction) 97.6 
Activity mean (0–9) 4.8 

While these descriptive statistics offer a broad picture of the active roles of nonprofits in creating social interaction and cohesion overall, some responses from nonprofit leaders clarify how they might matter for nonprofit sector effects. For instance, participation is integral to a Jewish cooperative we surveyed, whose members organize events ranging from park cleanups and educational programs to neighborhood picnics and Shabbat dinners. The nonprofit brings beneficiaries together regularly and promotes interaction with those outside the immediate community, “bridging” activities that we would expect to increase the likelihood of nonprofit sector effects (Putnam 2001). The leader of a human service agency provides another example, noting that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit “sewed and distributed masks to hospital workers, delivered food to the elderly, and made art for elderly patients at Harborview Medical Center who couldn’t have visitors.” Recognizing the extraordinary isolation their beneficiaries were facing, the nonprofit found unique ways to foster civic engagement.

Our landscape of the nonprofit sector in the Puget Sound reveals that public charities are critical threads in the organizational tapestry of civic life. Demonstrating that nonprofits are beneficial to the communities they serve, however, is quite different from demonstrating why the sector generates aggregate-level effects on discrete outcomes such as deaths from COVID-19, violent crime, happiness, corporate social responsibility, and government accountability (Drori, Yong Jang, and Meyer 2006; Lim and Tsutsui 2012; Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017; Zoorob and Salemi 2017; Makridis and Wu 2021; Ressler et al. 2021). Drawing on extant research, we explored four potential drivers of aggregate effects: managerialism; interorganizational collaboration; advocacy and political engagement; and civic engagement and social embeddedness. Our findings provide some support for the potential explanatory power of these drivers, but we maintain that nonprofit sector effects are undertheorized, particularly with respect to the multiplicity of underlying drivers and their potential consequences.

To begin with, the literature on nonprofit organizations highlights extensive variation along many dimensions—nonprofits differ with respect to the missions they pursue (and their capacity to pursue it), the civic roles they play, and the services they deliver. Such variation is problematic for “nonprofit sector effects,” which imply that some sort of central tendency can be inferred from an indicator. Not all studies utilize the same indicator, to be sure, but all rely on an aggregate measure (e.g., total nonprofits, total nonprofits per capita (density), total nonprofit linkages, total nonprofit memberships) as a proxy for typical nonprofit activity. Second, the literature on the four drivers reveals their power but also their complexity. The implication is that the effect of any given driver may depend on its content, yet aggregate sector measures provide no such information.

While all four drivers are present in the Puget Sound, making strong claims about nonprofit sector effects from any one case would not be appropriate, and our research site is rather unique. The Puget Sound has a well-deserved reputation for its vibrant associational life and for its highly educated and politically engaged populace. At the same time, inequality and social problems have accompanied economic growth in recent decades, and these problems are fraying the extensive civic threads in the region and straining the capacity of the nonprofit sector. These local dynamics situate nonprofits of the Puget Sound in a unique social context. However, an in-depth investigation of how those nonprofits work and what they create in the civic life of the local community can contribute to future research about mechanisms operating in other urban contexts.

Our findings for the Puget Sound—when the vitality of the region’s nonprofit sector is considered in relation to the literature on the four drivers—clarify possible pathways of nonprofit sector effects that can be explored or confirmed in other contexts. Here, our case surfaces novel and challenging questions about nonprofit sector effects, which have rarely been addressed in the literature, theoretically and empirically. The primary contributions we make, then, are to reveal what remains unknown about nonprofit sector effects and to highlight gaps between existing literature and opportunities for future research. We address some of the most pressing questions about those aggregate effects in the remainder of this article, organized around two topics: the valence of nonprofit sector effects, and the configuration and distribution of nonprofit sector drivers.

The Valence of Nonprofit Sector Effects

We have attended in this article primarily to the dynamics of the nonprofit sector that could produce aggregate effects—not the outcomes that might (or might not) be affected. We did so because a flaw in the literature on nonprofit sector effects is that it does not consider whether drivers can overlap or conflict or address whether drivers are likely to produce consistent effects across time or outcome. A primary strength of our data is its depth, which aligns with our objective of leveraging a nuanced understanding of the nonprofits sector landscape in the Puget Sound to develop theory on the underlying drivers of nonprofit sector effects. The breadth of the extant literature is its comparative advantage, as that body of work has explored many outcomes, and we relied on it to give a sense of the field of research. The topic of outcomes merits attention here in the discussion, though, because our review of the literature indicates that nonprofit sector effects have a valence; they have a “positive” or prosocial effect. If the outcome is violent crime or deaths from COVID-19, for instance, the nonprofit sector reduces it. If the outcome is women’s rights or human rights, the nonprofit sector increases it.

These empirical results accord with world polity theory, which argues that nonprofits are especially likely to enact modern scripts in the external environment that favor rights and social justice (Meyer et al. 1997; Schofer and Meyer 2005). More generally, these results accord with the notion that nonprofits are chartered to provide a public benefit and contribute to the public good. The puzzling aspect of these effects is their consistency despite diversity both within and across nonprofit sectors. Put differently, the extensive variation in the sector that makes us wary of overinterpreting our own data also makes us wonder about the lack of “negative” or even neutral (i.e., statistically insignificant) effects. We are not suggesting that antisocial nonprofit sector effects should be as common as prosocial effects, but at the very least we encourage research on (a) a broader range of outcomes and (b) conditions under which nonprofit sector effects might not be prosocial.

The main point is that research should not assume or always expect prosocial effects. After all, a larger number of nonprofits in a community could be the result of a weak nation-state with no social welfare system or the result of historical differences between corporatist and statist countries; fewer formal nonprofits could indicate less social need due to a proactive and engaged state (Salamon and Anheier 1998; Anheier, Lang, and Toepler 2020). Similarly, a small but important line of research reminds us that civil society can be “bad,” implying that greater ties or memberships in the sector could lead to less democracy, fewer rights, or greater discrimination (Chambers and Kopstein 2001; Theiss-Morse and Hibbing 2005). Our own data provide an instructive case for discussing the ambiguity of prosocial effects. Drug overdoses have increased significantly in the Puget Sound, even though approximately 30 percent of nonprofits in the region are dedicated to the human services and our findings demonstrate considerable civic activity (Balk 2022). Under these conditions of growing need, a negative or neutral nonprofit sector effect would not be surprising.

The Configuration and Distribution of Nonprofit Sector Drivers

Although the literature typically attributes nonprofit sector effects to one of the four drivers we have discussed, empirical studies rarely investigate the influence of multiple drivers at once. This approach is understandable considering that most studies utilize just one aggregate indicator to capture those effects. Discussing multiple drivers while using just one aggregate indicator—even a composite measure—does not suffice unless those mechanisms are presumed to align and reinforce one another. But to what extent do the four drivers work in tandem, such that higher levels of each amplify the effect on a given outcome? And are there circumstances or conditions when one driver might matter more than another, or when one driver might counteract or undermine another? Our findings and our review of the literature suggest that these are important questions to consider, as the configuration and distribution of drivers in a community could be consequential even if drivers are correlated.

As an example, some studies find that aspects of community “connectedness” contribute to higher levels of generalized trust, entrepreneurship, and many other outcomes (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000; Paxton 2007; Kwon, Heflin, and Ruef 2013; Makridis and Wu 2021). Our findings lead us to suggest that a driver like civic engagement and relational embeddedness could interact with a driver like managerialism and amplify such effects. Such an outcome would occur if higher levels of managerialism are salient to the capacity of nonprofits to utilize their connectedness effectively, which seems plausible to us. The configuration of drivers could just as easily reduce or weaken the overall nonprofit sector effect on an outcome. In a highly politicized environment, for instance, higher levels of advocacy and political engagement could dampen the positive effect of community “connectedness” on relevant outcomes (Baldassarri and Diani 2007). Finally, it is possible to imagine nonlinear effects or temporal components to drivers, such that their effects will be contingent on outcome processes and not always be constant, or the effect of one driver follows the others with a time interval, not contributing to the given outcome synchronously.

Our findings also draw attention to the distribution of nonprofit sector drivers and their potential relevance for outcomes. Unlike the configuration of drivers in a community, which highlights differences in the level or amount of each driver in a community, the distribution of drivers highlights inequality. Our descriptive analysis provides valuable information about each driver in the region, and comparative analysis will enable us to identify unique aspects of the configuration of drivers in the region—though we suspect that the levels are quite high for all four drivers. While useful, such comparisons cannot speak to where and how those drivers are distributed within a community. Many studies have suggested that nonprofits are relevant to urban inequality, as they serve as important resource brokers (Small 2006, 2009). Even if the overall levels of connectedness in the Puget Sound—for interorganizational collaboration, for political engagement and advocacy, and for civic engagement and relational advocacy—prove to be anomalously high, we would expect the distribution of those drivers to matter for outcomes.

Diverse national and cross-national studies have documented “nonprofit sector effects”—demonstrating that aggregate measures of the size and scope of the nonprofit sector (e.g., density, total number, total linkages) in a community have a substantively meaningful influence on outcomes such as violent crime, drug overdoses, happiness, and corporate social responsibility. We present a landscape of formal civil society in the Puget Sound, a region of the United States anchored by the city of Seattle, which we draw on to “unpack” these aggregate effects. Due to the growing nonprofit sector, accompanied by the economic growth of the region and diversifying social demands, studying the region’s nonprofit sector reveals a good deal about possible pathways of nonprofit sector effects. More specifically, we explore the underlying drivers that have been invoked regularly to explain such aggregate effects: managerialism; interorganizational ties; political engagement and advocacy; and civic engagement and relational embeddedness. Our findings indicate that nonprofits are critical civic threads in the organizational tapestry of the Puget Sound. At the same time, our findings surface new questions about the valence of nonprofit sector effects and about the configuration and distribution of drivers. We conclude that comparative analyses are necessary to assess the distinctiveness of the region, to explain how local dynamics shape nonprofit sector effects, and to find out how underlying drivers are at play in determining nonprofit sector effects in a unique or common manner. We hope that this article reads as a preliminary yet important step toward comparative research across global cities.

We are especially grateful to Walter Powell for his intellectual leadership of the Civic Life of Cities (CLC) Lab, to Christof Brandtner and Aaron Horvath for their assistance in creating the sample, and to Elizabeth Trinh for her extensive involvement in data collection. We also thank the entire CLC Lab for excellent comments on successive drafts of this paper. Our research has been supported by the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington and by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) at Stanford University.

There are no competing interests with respect to the work and authorship of this research.

David Suárez, PhD, is an associate professor at the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, University of Washington. His current research explores (1) the relationship between management strategy and organizational performance in social sector organizations and (2) the consequences of professionalization for nonprofits and foundations.

Gowun Park is a PhD candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, University of Washington. Her research interests focus on (1) the effect of institutional, environmental, and organizational factors on nonprofits’ financial outcomes; (2) the adoption of accountability systems in the nonprofit sector as a strategic choice of nonprofits; and (3) the organizational and societal conditions under which nonprofits promote civic engagement and democratic values in contemporary society.

1.

Though the response rate is lower than we hoped, the only statistically significant difference we identified in a comparison of the organizations that completed the survey to the broader population of nonprofits in the Puget Sound was organizational age. Nonprofits that participated in the survey are slightly older than the average nonprofit in the Puget Sound.

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