Introduction to Global Perspectives special collection: The Civic Life of Cities around the World

In a wired world, how do social interactions among organizations and people continue to define civil society? Our co-produced approach to studying civil societies through a place-based, organizational lens provides fresh answers to perennial questions about voice, accountability, and embeddedness. The six articles in this collection on the civic life of cities draw on more than 1,400 interviews with organizational leaders in San Francisco, Seattle, Shenzhen, Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna. Moving beyond the “big theories” of civil society, the articles illustrate the value of our dual emphasis on place and organizations by showing how comparisons of the people, practices, and partnerships of civil society organizations enable new middle-range theories of civil society. This approach promises to offer rich comparative insights into similarities and differences among organizations around the globe.

Living through a global pandemic compels us to rethink how people come together to pursue collective goals and to reconsider many tenets of canonical theories of civil society. First, the pandemic has surfaced profound inequalities across the globe, as few governments have proven up to the task of caring for citizens’ safety and security. Second, the widespread availability of internet communication technologies moved social interactions out of the office and home and onto the web. Services as well as protests are now online, volunteers and board members can skip the heavy commute to meetings, and information and resources from civil society organizations1 are readily available online. Third, digital technologies have, largely, enabled global interactions. Issues and causes are shared across the planet, despotic leaders on one side of the world dominate the news on the other, and social innovations are touted across space and time. Meetings, classes, doctor’s visits, social events, and even political campaigns are conducted virtually. Office workers have left their desks, likely never to return in similar numbers. The global pandemic has made these striking transformations visible to everyone, while accelerating them at a pace previously unimaginable.

And yet, in this special collection, we introduce six articles from a project that reminds us of the fundamentally place-based nature of organized civil society—defined by the deep relations with community members that occur outside the abstract systems of market and state. Place refers to both attachment to a physical locale and an intimate sense of affiliation to the spaces one occupies. Places are “relational, historical and concerned with identity” and imbue the spatial context of civil society with meaning and opportunities for social interaction (Augé 1995, 78–79; Relph 1976). In a wired world, how do social interactions among organizations and people afforded by place continue to define civil society? Our collaborative research on San Francisco, Seattle, Shenzhen, Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna shows that the way we work may have changed, but how and where we connect with others may not have shifted so markedly.2

Several examples from our research detailing how organizations responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic underscore our point. In Seattle, an organization that supports Asian immigrants offered essential services including food distribution and medical services in person during the pandemic, while switching other activities such as English classes for immigrants to a virtual model. A nonprofit in suburban Seattle that supports domestic violence survivors has been offering emergency shelters for victims during the pandemic, while events such as a gala and auction (their annual fundraising event) were moved to a virtual space. In both cases, the activities deemed most essential were continued in person. In Vienna, when foreign farmworkers could not enter the country due to COVID-19 restrictions, local members of food cooperatives stepped in to harvest farmers’ crops. In Singapore, a health-related nonprofit bent under the pressure of the pandemic, but ultimately expanded its services by using chatbots and social media to stay in touch with its community online. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a nonprofit that is a haven for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented college students (such as formerly incarcerated individuals) reopened to offer a safe study space for community-building and solidarity among marginalized students. They adapted both their space and their communal rhythms to simultaneously address public health concerns and students’ need for a physical “home” on campus. In Oakland, California, a community center took over a local park in a low-income neighborhood that had been populated by gangs to engage in large-scale food distribution to ensure that vulnerable neighbors and families did not go hungry during the height of the pandemic. In Shenzhen, a reading club came together online to build a digital community with weekly readings to overcome feelings of isolation. They read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for solace and hope during dark times and through such efforts have seen their community grow after the lockdown. In Sydney, a social enterprise café run by a nonprofit collaborated with other local restaurants and a local surf club to transform their kitchen and source, create, and deliver individual and family care packages during the lockdown, in addition to selling their usual menu. They asked the community to continue to send people to them who are struggling and need help. Across all of these cities, locally embedded civil society organizations took on important new roles during lockdowns.

Civil society organizations are rooted in place through their people, practices, and partnerships. During the storm of the pandemic, these roots may have grown deeper and found new ways of invigorating cities. Numerous studies, focusing on drug overdoses, citizen engagement, or sustainability policies, have shown an association between civil society organizations and the health of cities (Small 2006; Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017; Brandtner and Suárez 2020). But this intriguing line of work raises the question of why civil society organizations are crucial for collective well-being. Our study moves beyond the association of the density of civil society organizations with lower rates of crime, urban vitality, and even perceived levels of happiness to explore the ways in which civil society organizations contribute to urban life.

In so doing, we introduce a reality check on some long-held ideas about civil society and how it is organized. Examining things that are seemingly different and alike across cities allows us to assess whether ideas developed in one setting have currency across the globe. Comparison helps to see if the lenses through which we view civil society and nonprofit organizations are portable outside of the circumstances under which they were developed. Many years ago, the polymath Herbert Simon (1991) argued that if a visitor came to us from Mars and observed the world in which we lived, she would see a society of organizations, not a world of markets or states. The visitor would encounter an ecology of organizations with wondrous variety across the globe. It is with such a Martian naivete that we embark on a common investigation into how civil society is rooted in and generative of the places where we live.

In the following, we introduce the logic of a place-based comparison of organized civil society, outline the theoretical motivation for our comparative lens on cities and for focusing this lens on organizations, explain the empirical approach, and finally introduce how the articles in this collection illuminate the people, practices, and partnerships underlying our place-based perspective.

Theoretical priors

Established theories of civil society frequently focus on the institutional context in which communities come together and organize. To explain how our place-based comparison of organized civil society moves beyond these existing understandings, we begin with the theoretical priors of our inquiry. The rich body of scholarship that has guided the study of nonprofit organizations over the past forty years is dominated by several central arguments.

One line of work focuses on relations between the state and nonprofits, positing an inverse relationship between the extent of government social welfare spending and the size of the nonprofit sector (Salamon 1987; Grønbjerg and Smith 2021). This approach often takes an added historical dimension to consider the sequence and timing of associational and state development to account for the size and composition of the nonprofit sector (Anheier and Salamon 2006). When modern states develop before associational activity becomes widespread, the government carries out most social services. In nations where associational life either predated large-scale government or developed in tandem with it—such as the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia—social service activities are often conducted by voluntary organizations.

A second broad claim is that the presence of nonprofit organizations is based on the heterogeneity of the population, with the concept of a median voter as a linchpin (Weisbrod 1989). Heterogeneity is captured by the degree of consensus among citizens for collective services, such as medical services, day care, and nursing homes. If members of a society have disparate interests, governments will have difficulty catering to these diverse tastes. This argument rests on the belief that politicians cater to a “median voter” who represents the largest segment of the demand for public goods. Moreover, in heterogeneous societies, with diversity also marked by religion, race, or ethnicity, one would expect to see more nonprofit organizations than in a more homogeneous society (James 1987).

A third central claim is that nonprofits are inherently more trustworthy than firms or bureaus. Nonprofits are posited to arise in situations where consumers feel unable to assess the quality of a good or service accurately (Hansmann 1980, 1987). In this view, nonprofit organizations have less incentive to take advantage of consumers’ informational disadvantages. Put simply, when it is difficult to monitor an activity or when the recipient of an activity is not the person paying for it (as in the case of professional childcare), the informational asymmetry between the consumer and the provider can be exploited by commercial entities. With nonprofit status, “the incentive to chisel is weakened” (Weisbrod 1989, 543).

Localizing institutional contexts

Scholars in these three traditions often rely on comparisons across states or nation-states, assuming that historical trajectories, national culture, and traditions of public administration are the primary external forces that shape the behavior of civil society organizations (Esping-Andersen 1990; Salamon and Anheier 1998; Anheier and Salamon 2006). Some scholars go further and argue that contemporary organizations routinely search for solutions and state-of-the-art practices beyond national boundaries (Bromley 2020). Undoubtedly, nonprofits look to others within their city, state, province, country, or global community for inspiration and as competitors for funding. The articles in this collection take a different tack and illuminate the distinctive ways in which the local and the global are intertwined.

By comparing cities rather than nations, we overcome the challenge of comparing familiar but fundamentally incomparable units. If we did our study from the perspective of national nonprofit sectors, we would struggle with the fact that Austria, Australia, and the United States have drastically different mandates, magnitudes, and matters of concern. Moreover, within-country variation in China and the United States is immense. If we conducted a study of organizations divorced from their local setting, we would not do justice to the fact that organizations of one provenance are embedded in the same cultural context and local norms, which are much more consistent within cities than across an entire nation. Cities and their organizations face parallel problems such as transportation, allocation, and solidarity. It is this family resemblance of problems that makes the civic life of cities inherently more comparable and more tangible than that of nations.

Cities remain, of course, nested in other geographies: they are a composite of neighborhoods and administrative districts that exist both within a state and a nation, while simultaneously having social, political, and economic connections to other cities around the world. Relations with national governments may even be hostile, as was the case for both the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle during the Trump presidency. In Shenzhen, civil society organizations are deeply concerned that political consolidation in Beijing may erode their local autonomy. In Sydney, new networks formed among diverse civil society groups to protest the conservative government’s restrictions on nonprofit advocacy. But despite these challenges with national governments, most civic organizations generally focus on their immediate environment and constituents. A significant portion of funding is local, both from institutional sources and individual donors who support the communities to which they belong. Hiring and the recruitment of volunteers is also local, even with the rise of management professionals who traverse sectors to lead nonprofits.

Previous comparisons of national nonprofit sectors have no way to systemically account for the immediate socio-spatial environment of civil society organizations, which is why notions of national and global civil society remain elusive. As a result, the social, political, and economic contexts tend to become relatively abstract and general, and eventually caricatured. There is, in contrast, nothing elusive or particularly abstract about neighborhood groups, fundraising circles, local beautification, and development corps. The surfer clubs, prayer groups, dance studios, neighborhood associations, and parent-teacher associations that fill the pages of this collection are tangible, not abstract. Neither are the problems they face nor the tools these organizations bring to bear on remedying them. When we talk about the civic life of cities, we consider organizations from all walks of life whose intersection with peoples’ life course is palpable. This palpability suggests several reasons why a place-based, organizational perspective on civil society is crucial in the context of cities and neighborhoods, which we lay out next.

Why compare cities?

First, many problems—be they practical or intellectual—have an important local dimension. Scholars of civil society have long been deeply invested in the issues and causes pursued by civil society organizations and the forces that shape how people join together (de Tocqueville [1831] 2010; Putnam 2000; Lichterman 2020). Civil society attracts substantial scholarship precisely because these organizations foster community, provide crisis relief, push governments to consider questions of long-term interest, partner in service delivery, and develop new solutions to old problems. Although these contributions to society are crucial on many levels of analysis, they take on a particular urgency in cities. As Richard Sennett explains, two historical words for “city” in the French language demonstrate vastly different meanings that cities take on: cité—historically referring to the character of neighborhood life and a mentality of how people want to live together—and ville—referring to the built environment and its relation to open spaces, infrastructure, and nature. Civil society organizations mend the “essential crookedness of the city”3 that results from the tensions between cité and ville (Sennett 2018, 17).

Second, people tend to be more committed to their neighborhoods, cities, and regions than to the nations in which they live. They feel ownership and attachment to place, from their preschool to their retirement home (Sampson 1988; Gieryn 2000; Flaherty and Brown 2010). This connection is why urban sociologists have long argued that compliance with and enforcement of social norms plays out within a city’s neighborhoods. Such social control is “not attributable to the characteristics of individuals alone” (Sampson 2012, 152), and its enforcement relies on trust in communities as well as the “everyday strategies” that people bring to bear on addressing challenges. Both are critical missions of civil society organizations. Recognizing the importance of social organization for individual and collective outcomes in cities, we contend that the advancement or breakdown of society occurs not only in the nations of this globalized world but also in the neighborhoods of our cities.

Third, cities are a promising unit of analysis for scholarship for the kind of meso-level interactions that determine whether civil society organizations are successful in their pursuit of the public good. Existing theories tend to focus either on the micro- or the macro-level of organizational behavior. Social origins theory, for instance, considers relations among societal groups and path dependencies due to prior institutional arrangements as the major reason why nonprofit sectors differ across countries. Work on nonprofit leadership or volunteering often focuses on the personalities and motivations of individuals. The meso-level, in contrast, emphasizes the organizational context in which individuals make decisions and the relationships that organizations must sustain with other organizations to thrive.

The city is a particularly fruitful level of analysis for studying civil society and its organizations on the meso-level. To give but one example, research on innovative ecosystems has pointed to the important role of nonprofits in knitting together regional economies (Storper et al. 2015). Diverse networks held together by associations have been shown to be critical for regional growth (Marquis and Battilana 2009; Safford 2009). Extensive evidence from local observations shows that interorganizational relationships matter for civil society organizations in various ways. Interorganizational support is increasingly important to civil society organizations, which are in pursuit of not only social impact but also collective impact. Civil society organizations are exceptionally collaborative in ordinary as well as extraordinary times, in part because they are short on resources and rely on funding from more resource-rich partners. These relationships are often reciprocated by their counterparts, including corporations and foundations. Many foundations are heavily invested in local nonprofit ecosystems; even multinational corporations dedicate greater support to the communities in which they are headquartered (Tilcsik and Marquis 2013).

Civil society organizations are meaningful explanatory factors for city-level outcomes because they are part of a larger ecosystem of organizations. Ecosystems have been conceptualized as an interconnected set of organizations, activities, and artifacts, and the relations and institutions that support them (Moore 1993; Dhanaraj and Parkhe 2006; Jacobides, Cennamo, and Gawer 2018). Quite often, these ecosystems are spatially circumscribed (Asheim and Gertler 2006). In research on why the nascent biotech industry took off in only a few US cities when many cities tried to build a biohub, Powell and colleagues identified the role of anchor tenants that served as a keystone species, just as in biological ecosystems. In Boston, Massachusetts, that anchor role was played by private universities and nonprofit medical centers (Owen-Smith and Powell 2004); in the San Francisco Bay Area, private universities and venture capital firms were central to growth (Whittington, Owen-Smith, and Powell 2009); and in San Diego, nonprofit research centers like the Salk and Scripps Institutes were crucial, all because the nonprofits were interested in growing the pie, not just their slice of it (Powell, Packalen, and Whittington 2012). In studies of why some US cities took the lead in green buildings, Brandtner (2022) showed a sequence of development in which nonprofits were the first movers, building green buildings that were both attractive and energy efficient. These existence proofs led policymakers and political leaders to pass encouraging legislation, which in turn attracted private investment and adoption of green practices by for-profits. Initial moves by associations and nonprofits are frequently catalytic because they are viewed by governments and companies as complements rather than substitutes for both private and government actions. At the city level, we see the social processes that connect the micro and the macro play out to build a community of common fate.

Why an organizational lens?

Having argued why the study of civil society needs an urban lens, we now explain why this lens should be focused on the organizations—the vehicles through which people attain voice, identity, affiliations, and employment. People’s life chances are shaped by the kinds of organizations they are associated with, and how well or poorly those organizations perform strongly affects the well-being of citizens and communities. Friendships are formed in organizations, and biographies molded by organizational affiliations. The gains to communities that accrue from improving organizational performance and learning from successes can be enormous, just as the failures of organizations can damage lives and cities. Both success and failure change the probabilities that certain courses of action will occur. Accordingly, the health of cities is integrally bound up with the health of the organizations that operate with them.

Organizations are places where global issues meet local realities. Whether it is climate change, food insecurity, or immigration, these concerns are addressed by organizations at a local level (Brandtner 2022). One might say that organizations are a city’s eyes on the world; hence the “global” enters cities through organizations. Moreover, many of the pressing social problems of our times are tackled first by civil society organizations. Governments are typically slow, and often responsive only to legal citizens or voters, not immigrants, refugees, or the indigent. Businesses attend to clients and employees and largely eschew emergent, fringe, or novel issues. Readers will find that “think globally, act locally” is a mantra of many of the organizations we study.

At the city level, organizations of all kinds—civil society organizations, governments, businesses, and philanthropies—interface with another, forming a locus of contact between multiple domains. The image of an interface is a fertile one, suggesting that “any ‘dividing line’ in a social system is a two-sided affair which must be actively created, perceived, and reproduced on each side, in order that there be a demarcation” (White 1982, 11). Through such interactions, organizations develop an awareness of others. Awareness in turn may focus on differences or similarities, reflecting an interface’s potential to divide or fuse communities.

The eminent organizational scholar Charles Perrow (1986) taught us that organizations are tools for shaping the world. Phillip Selznick (1957), his mentor, emphasized that organizations are laden with values, and those values are expressed by their leaders and their actions. We take from their insights that organizations are simultaneously sites and drivers of action (Powell and Brandtner 2016). As sites, they are an arena in which debates occur, struggles take place, and values are formed. As drivers, they alter the odds that certain things get done. In our view, organizations create, compete, collaborate, coordinate, and control much of contemporary life. How could one study civil society without placing organizations front and center in any analysis?

Linking urban and organizational perspectives

Considering spatial context is not only critical for understanding organizational behavior. Viewing organizations as embedded in place is vital for an understanding of cities. Cities have been hailed as some of the most crucial inventions of humanity. The dense social interactions in cities allow for the rapid exchange of ideas and the formation of collective actions and social norms that can spread beyond city limits (Jacobs 1961; Glaeser 2011; Storper 2013).

At the same time, cities are highly unequal environments whose persistent underbelly can provide an inhibitive environment for marginalized communities that are segregated in poor parts of the city. As Plato famously argued in The Republic, “any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich.” The persistent disadvantages of some neighborhoods over others are, among others, instantiated by unequal access to amenities and institutional resources that are often provided or advocated for by civil society organizations (Small and McDermott 2006). It is not without some irony that civil society organizations reproduce the structural inequities of neighborhood opportunities at the same time they actively work to create a way out of entrenched inequalities (Dunning 2022).

In trying to understand why some neighborhoods are fertile ground for marginalized communities and others are barren of hope, scholars have examined the spatial context of social networks and other social dimensions of neighborhood structure. Civil society organizations play an integral part in several of these dimensions (Brandtner and Dunning 2020). They have been shown to contribute to the neighborhood structural context that explains the uneven dispersion of collective efficacy in such contexts as crime and health (Sampson 2012; Browning et al. 2017). In the United States, nonprofits engaged in community building and crime prevention were causally linked to the great crime decline since the 1980s (Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar 2017).

Civil society organizations often fill in the representational voids left by local politics (Marwell 2009; Mosley 2014; Levine 2021). Mario Small (2009) has shown how the brokerage opportunities created at inconspicuous spaces, such as the waiting room of a childcare center, transformed lives and created bridges among community members that enhanced social and political life in neighborhoods. Work by Eric Klinenberg (2015, 2018) has shown that the spatial and organizational aspects of the built environment—such as community centers and libraries—constitute social infrastructure for neighborhoods, which prove especially crucial during times of crisis. Moreover, they have explanatory heft even when considering other features of neighborhoods, including affluence, racial composition, and clientelist support by local politicians. These insights are important because childcare centers and libraries are malleable features of neighborhoods, whereas economic and racial differences are incredibly inert and hard to rectify.

Despite the ubiquity of organizations in cities, the role of institutions and the organizations that maintain them remains underappreciated in urban research. In a provocative essay, Marwell and McQuarrie (2013) argued that the different schools of thought in urban research share a curious absence of organizations. This observation comes from urbanists who are calling for the mobilization of organization analysis to better understand urban outcomes. Thus far, few have taken up this call. In this collection, we remedy that blind spot by making organizations central to our analyses of the civic lives of cities.

The visionary German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt offers a touchstone for our inquiry, as his restless research around the world created the way in which we understand nature today (Wulf 2015). He climbed mountains and traversed deserts, collecting samples of trees and rocks throughout the Americas and Asia, all the while shipping crates back to Europe. As an explorer, he was astonished by rich variation; but as a scientist, comparing specimens from multiple places around the world, particularly at similar elevations, he observed striking resemblances, revealing the extraordinary interconnections of nature. Just like wombats and other marsupials around the world, or the coniferous trees encountered as you ascend mountain peaks, civil society organizations come in various forms and serve functions that may at first appear locally specific but seen in comparative context are closely related to organizations in other places. As but one example, immigrant- and migrant-serving organizations across our cities range markedly in form from cultural organizations to business associations to self-help groups, but they all play a comparable role in introducing strangers to a new place and preserving bonds from communities left behind. Only a comparative perspective permits insight into how global issues are manifest and addressed in distinctive fashion at the local level. Simple counts of types of organizations would miss this recognition of the multifunctional features of local civic organizations.

Comparing cities and their organizations

We have already explained our theoretical motivation for studying cities, but why did we select these cities? We chose these cities for a combination of reasons, both practical and conceptual. First, we are not parachute researchers who land in unfamiliar places to do research. In every city, there are members of the team who either were born in that city or have lived there for at least ten years. These connections proved crucial in making contacts and creating a sense of safety in discussing matters with us that are seldom talked about in many circumstances, especially in autocratic settings. Second, trust within our team was essential. To conduct an unprecedented, multiyear study of civic organizations in cities around the world, we needed to rely on scholars who were willing to take a big risk and engage in an unprecedented effort to interview hundreds of civic leaders. Third, we built a community of researchers, many of whom have been connected in one way or another through the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, who share a willingness to do comparative work, to critique one another’s efforts in a sympathetic way, and to learn from other team members, regardless of institutional affiliation or rank.

Finally, our sample cities provide notable paired contrasts, further enabling a deeper understanding of context. We have obvious differences in terms of political and economic regimes, with Seattle and San Francisco in the laissez-faire United States; Singapore and Shenzhen, wealthy cities in autocratic settings; and more corporatist democracies in Vienna and Sydney. We have found important differences in terms of government regulation and oversight, with civil society organizations in Shenzhen, Singapore, and Sydney monitored and regulated by the state and much less oversight in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vienna. Wealthy foundations, philanthropists, and corporate philanthropy are influential in San Francisco, Seattle, and Shenzhen but relatively absent in Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna. And there are differences in the use of tech affordances, with civil society organizations turning to crowdfunding campaigns and developing apps in San Francisco, Shenzhen, Singapore, and Sydney. All the cities are affluent, with sizable immigrant and migrant populations.

We began planning our work in the fall of 2017. Several of us had been involved in studying the San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit sector over the course of two decades. We were often asked by audiences and reviewers whether our findings were unique to the Bay Area. We had a hunch they were wrong, so we were keen to expand to other locations, and Seattle seemed a good site. David Suárez, our project leader there, had been a participant in the initial round of interviews in the Bay Area and was intimately familiar with the research. Seattle provides a good comparison with San Francisco as both share a strong tech presence and a history of progressive politics. Shenzhen, China, was added as another technology center, and with these three cities we cover the three leading technology centers in the world, in very different political regimes. Several members of our research team for Shenzhen had been postdoctoral fellows at Stanford and had worked closely with us. Hokyu Hwang on the Sydney team had also worked with the research team on the initial San Francisco study. The other cities came on board because their lead researchers had strong connections to project members and our research center at Stanford, ensuring that we could work together on this daunting undertaking.

Our comparative approach allows us to see how differences and commonalities at the organizational level both shape and are shaped by local social and spatial contexts. In contrast to studying each city individually and then doing comparisons afterward, our design has two important advantages: (1) the similar interview protocols, described below, give us a common benchmark against which nonprofits from different places can be compared; (2) the comparative design affords more than just assessment of similarities or differences—it allows us to explicitly theorize about the influences of contextual factors on organizations and the consequences of seemingly comparable organizational activities, such as crowdfunding or evaluation, in divergent contexts.

A common methodology across cities

Our goal was to study formally organized, registered civil society organizations. Our first tasks were to obtain a registry of all formal nonprofit organizations for each city, draw a large random sample from the official list, spend hundreds of hours cleaning the lists, and determine who was in charge and how we could best contact them. We obtained this information from a variety of sources, such as the tax authorities (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service in the United States), a national association of charities, or registries collected at the city level. All the cities’ registries were imperfect; they contained defunct organizations, had missing information, and created all manner of little headaches. We were motivated by concerns with comparability and symmetry. We knew that we were studying varieties of oranges, so to speak, but we wanted to make sure that all organizations were a member of the orange species. Decisions about which organizations to include and exclude were discussed repeatedly in global team meetings to ensure consistency. Because we wanted to collect data from hundreds of nonprofits, we limited our interviews to executive directors, board chairs, or chief executives. The leadership nomenclature varies across cities, but we started at the top, where the individual has a deep understanding of the organization’s mission and finances as well as a bird’s-eye view of the overall organization. Then we set about developing an interview protocol that could be used across all the cities and administered in English, German, and Mandarin. Over the course of the next ten months, we developed an interview schedule, working iteratively across cities and testing it with nonprofit leaders across the United States.

In July 2018 the Shenzhen team tackled our first big challenge by pilot testing the interview schedule there with forty nonprofit leaders. The goal was to see whether the kinds of questions we had developed were legible to these leaders, and whether they would be willing to sit down with us for interviews. Fortunately, the answers to both questions were affirmative. Our next question was whether we could use random sampling in the political context of Shenzhen, and again we believed that this would be possible. We further refined the interview schedule in response to these pilot interviews. Our final product was a semi-structured interview that could either be self-administered or conducted in person, which combined both quantitative item responses and open-ended questions. We chose this middle route to ensure that we collected comparable data from a large sample of organizations and gained reflections from leaders in their different organizational and geographic contexts.

In November 2018 we returned to Shenzhen to launch the first wave of the survey there. Soon thereafter the survey was launched in San Francisco and then in Vienna. Seattle, Sydney, and Singapore soon followed. The survey questions are comparable across each city, but there is some between-city variation, which stems from varying research interests of the teams, differences in how surveys were administered, and the consequences of the pandemic. Researchers were given a green light to add questions that were relevant or unique to their urban context. There was also variation in how the survey could be conducted across cities. For example, in Shenzhen interviews had to be done in person as there was not sufficient comfort with an online survey. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the research was known to many people in the nonprofit community. As a result, the response rate was higher, and there was a willingness to take the survey via whatever means was most convenient—in person, by telephone, or online. In Vienna, surveys were completed online, by telephone, on Zoom, and in person. In Singapore, surveys were done in person and online, and in Seattle and Sydney, surveys were conducted online and by phone. We meet weekly to stay in touch with one another across the cities, share information about the progress of the work, and discuss institutional details about the different urban contexts. To this point, we have done more than 1,400 interviews with executive directors in the six cities represented in this collection. More details on methodology are provided in each of the articles.

The pandemic created another challenge, as each city experienced the severity of COVID-19 at different times and responded with different policies. All interviews were completed in both Shenzhen and San Francisco before the first cases occurred, but in both cities, we wanted to see how organizations are coping. We did so by examining the organizations’ social media platforms and doing short check-in interviews with directors who had time to talk with us. In other cities, we added questions about the effects of the pandemic to the interviews. As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that it was no longer a short-term aberration but rather a dramatic disjuncture in the lives of the organizations we are studying. Accordingly, we treated it as a feature, not a bug, and sought to understand its consequences.


Surveys of and interviews with organizational leaders have their blind spots. First, much prior research on the importance of nonprofits to cities relies on counts of nonprofit presence. We go to the source and study large samples of randomly selected organizations. To do this requires talking with the senior representatives of the organizations. We recognize that those at the top may tell a different story than those in the lower ranks of the organization. We are also mindful of debates over whether interviews only capture subjective accounts of circumstances (Jerolmack and Khan 2014; Lamont and Swidler 2014; Small and Calarco 2022). These are the reasons why we check the leaders’ responses with analyses of the organizations’ financial records, public documents, and social media content. We have hundreds of photographs of the organizations, have visited their offices, and have spent time in the neighborhoods where they are located.

Second, we focus on legally registered nonprofit organizations to utilize random sampling. Minimalist, informal, single issue-based, temporary, or intentionally under-the-radar organizations fall outside the scope of our study. Organizations that are pursuing social-purpose goals through other organizational or corporate forms, such as foundations, benefit corporations, or philanthropic LLCs, are also not included. In the future, it is likely that we will see more comparative studies of benefit corporations and social enterprises across countries (for first steps, see Mair 2020; Marquis 2020), but comparative work on informal or temporary organizations is exceedingly hard.

Third, there are many other forms of civic action, including participating in local political affairs, leafletting, collecting signatures, and participating in neighborhood cleanups, that deepen the threads of community (Lichterman 2020; Lichterman and Eliasoph 2014). Our organizational focus misses aspects of civic life that occur independently of the efforts of formal nonprofits. We assume, but cannot test, that civic action of this individual, voluntaristic kind goes hand in hand with the presence of formal charitable organizations.

The six articles in the collection report initial results of our research in each city, shedding light on several ideas that previous work has established as central to understanding civil society. Among others, these ideas include embeddedness, which suggests that nonprofits are the threads that weave the fabric of civic life (Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti 1994). Do the people who work in civil society organizations and the people whom they represent and serve look like one another demographically? Are the organizations located in the communities that they serve? A second is voice, the view that civil society organizations are laboratories and schools for learning how to be citizens (de Tocqueville [1831] 2010; Clemens 2020). Whom do civil society organizations speak for? Is their voice muted by fears of government restriction and donor oversight, or it full-throated in the interests of those whom the organizations represent? Is participation in civil society organizations exclusive, limited to their own members and beneficiaries, or inclusive on behalf of wider communities and political agendas? A third concerns accountability, both to those whom you represent and to those whom you rely on for funds (Ebrahim 2019; Willems 2021). How do different models of evaluation and monitoring by administrative units, donors, and the public condition organizations’ ability to pursue their missions? Through examination of one or more of these dimensions, our authors suggest that organized civil society continues to be both place-based and context-dependent.

The articles

The collection begins with the San Francisco Bay Area, a region with stark divides in wealth and opportunities, where nonprofits try to mend the cracks, often with money from the same sources that have created the gaps in income and housing security. The pandemic further widened these cleavages and led to divergent organizational responses that ranged from wholesale changes in activities and strategies to hunkering down and continuing to do the same while scraping by on less. Connection to place, in the form of staff, beneficiaries, and funding, shapes the actions of Bay Area organizations, with notable contrasts in advocacy efforts, collaboration strategies, and management styles formed by different types of embeddedness, as Laryea, Zhao, and Powell (2022) posit.

The greater Seattle area nonprofit sector, too, has experienced economic growth alongside growing inequalities and rising social problems over recent decades, prompted by the surge in the local tech industry. As Suárez and Park (2022) argue, gentrification, population growth, and housing insecurity mark the landscape faced by civil society organizations in the Puget Sound. Collaboration with businesses and other nonprofits is a notable fact of life, but collaboration with federal and state government is comparatively rare. The differences in closeness to branches of the state are a notable divide between these two Left Coast metropolitan areas and the other four cities discussed in the collection.

Nonprofits in Shenzhen share several important place-based features with their San Francisco and Seattle compatriots. Long and Luo (2022) show that Shenzhen’s unusual status as a city of social experimentation in an authoritarian state and a rising high-tech hub in the global production chain has created unequal physical, social, and digital urban space. Rather than serving the marginal populations such as migrant workers, nonprofits have a strong propensity for serving the interests of the business sector and middle-class professionals to defend the private market against the powerful state in the “Silicon Valley of China.”

Considering the strict regulatory bounds on civil society organizations, Singapore offers an extraordinary case to study the entanglement of civil society and a city-state. Yeo, Natrajan, Han, and Juang (2022) examine a notable turn to crowdfunding as a new source of support for local civil society organizations. The search for new sources of income is one of many ways in which nonprofit organizations work around the state’s stiff regulations to navigate the pandemic. The authors argue that despite its cutting-edge flavor, crowdfunding barricades nonprofits behind legislative walls while creating new connections with marginalized communities.

Sydney’s nonprofit sector continues to be deeply formed by its relations to market, state, and civil society, as Logue and Hwang (2022) argue. With a push to find new sources of income, financial innovations such as crowdfunding and impact investments have “shifted the sands” on which the city’s nonprofits are built. As Australia’s largest city, Sydney features many national organizations, which entails a closer relationship to the federal state than is the case for its American and Chinese counterparts. Efforts to redraw regulations about advocacy have created tensions about both voice and accountability, and the organizational responses to such institutional shifts increasingly blur sectoral boundaries.

Vienna’s nonprofit ecosystem provides a final contrast with the tech cities in our study that suggests some theoretical paths forward from our initial inquiries. Maier, Meyer, and Terzieva (2022) describe Vienna as characterized by both local civil society organizations that are tied to political parties and the Catholic church, and a newer generation of globally oriented organizations that present themselves as entrepreneurial and keen to disrupt the corporatist status quo. Given that nearly half of Vienna’s population has some non-German-speaking migration background, Vienna’s cohesion illustrates how civil society organizations contribute to society not only through service provision and advocacy but also through building community. The historically shifting power relations between socioeconomic classes offer a compelling setting to propose several dimensions along which local nonprofit sectors vary.

People, practices, and partnerships

How do these articles allow us to look beyond the “grand” theories about the social origins, collective goods provision, and trustworthiness of civil society? A focus on middle-range theorizing—advanced by Merton (1949) and Boudon (1991) as an alternative to the collection of empirical facts without a guiding theory or to grand, sweeping theory that it is not possible to confirm—has been a hallmark of progress in the social sciences. In this inquisitive spirit, our work seeks to develop and examine several meso-level concepts that are portable across space and time without denying the context in which civil society takes place.

It is not our goal to debunk or critique the important foundational theories of why civil society organizations continue to exist, but rather to begin at a different starting point. We do not assume that nonprofits are inherently more trustworthy, nor that relations between states, markets, and civil society necessarily have a deterministic trajectory. And we recognize that with increased immigration and racial reckonings, diversity has many more meanings today than it did in the twentieth century. Consequently, we want to investigate the organizational variety of nonprofits, the differing social and political contexts in which they operate, and what contributions these organizations make to urban life. As the following articles illustrate, all three dimensions run the gamut within our cities. Our conceptual tool kit contains meso-level ideas—related to people, practices, and partnerships—that lend themselves to a plethora of possible middle-range inquiries. Each is represented in our data collection.

People. Who are the organization members that staff our organizations, and where do they come from? What types of professional leaders do we find? We explore how the different forms of expertise these organization members embody play out in terms of how organizations define their goals and relate to their communities. One crucial question of our inquiry is how civil society organizations engage in the production of integrated communities—including whether staff match the demographic profile of the organization’s constituents. We do not assume that demographic and spatial matching are necessarily better in terms of outcomes, but we do believe that matching produces a different kind of orientation. In one of our studies, Brandtner and Laryea (2022) distinguish “suite-level” professional expertise and “street smarts” to capture a contrast between local knowledge and system knowledge. Understanding whether the people who work in nonprofits know the people they work for and with on a first-name basis helps us understand how relationships vary across organizations and cities. As the article on San Francisco suggests, there is marked variation across types of nonprofits and cities with respect to engagement with other nonprofits, philanthropists, businesses, and the state. Our organizational perspective accounts for these relationships and the tensions and opportunities therein.

Practices. We are also interested in examining the adoption, diffusion, and repurposing of organizational practices. These practices can be artifacts of mental models of management that help us understand how administration is practiced around the globe. Across the six cities, there is a striking trend of civil society organizations being led either by older leaders with a background in social welfare, local politics, or community action or by a younger cadre of university-educated professionals with advanced management degrees. What are the consequences of these divergent mindsets on the activities in which organizations engage and the tools they use to achieve their missions? Amid the many organizational practices that organizations adopt in striving to appear more professional, one that may be lost is voice. The articles on Singapore and Shenzhen, however, reveal that technologies are used not only as sources of legitimacy and income but also as back doors to overcoming limits on voice in an autocratic context. In a similar vein, we searched for novelty in practices, particularly in the context of a pandemic that has disrupted normal affairs. We find all manner of repurposing of organizational skills and routines and forms of civic muscle and innovative deviance, even in a restrictive city-state.

Partnerships. Finally, we are attentive to interorganizational relationships, most notably between civil society organizations and peers, funders, supporters, and potentially competitors among businesses and government agencies. Our meso-level view underscores that civil society organizations are in constant negotiation and exchange with other organizations that pursue similar social missions. Many executive directors impressed on us that their goals can be achieved only in collaboration with other organizations. One line of inquiry that appears particularly contingent on such collaboration is that of nonprofit accountability. There is much discussion of accountability across the globe, so we endeavored to learn about how civil society organizations demonstrate that they deliver on their copious promises to society. As the articles on Seattle, Shenzhen, and San Francisco illustrate, pressures are felt in surprisingly similar ways in different cities, and organizations often resist forms of measurement and assessment that they find orthogonal to their goals. Here, too, we find that nonprofits are not simple, subservient entities, but rather creative in fashioning their own methods of accounting for their actions, often going beyond what is asked of them to explore new ways of being open to their publics. As they try to shape the debate over evaluative standards, these organizations are asking questions about accountability “to whom.”


Studying civil society from a place-based, organizational perspective not only promises a genuinely sociological take on how civil society organizations behave—what Henry Hansmann (1980) called the undertheorized “supply-side” of the nonprofit economy. This approach also permits the kind of principled “Humboldtian” exploration that reveals empirical puzzles about our world and “eureka” moments about how this world works that are becoming exceedingly rare in contemporary research. We believe that the articles in this collection are full of opportunities for comparison and contrast that we hope will advance middle-range theories of organized civil society in an increasingly wired world.

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

We are deeply grateful to all our colleagues in the Civic Life of Cities Lab for comments on earlier drafts, and to the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for research support.

Christof Brandtner is an assistant professor of social innovation at emlyon Business School and a senior research fellow in Stanford’s Civic Life of Cities Lab. His research connects organizational and urban studies to examine the emergence, diffusion, and implementation of sustainable organizing. He is working on a book about how civil society has shaped cities’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change (Columbia University Press). His work is published or forthcoming in the American Journal of Sociology, Sociological Theory, Organization Studies, Urban Studies, NVSQ, and Voluntas among others. He studied nonprofit management at WU Vienna, organizational and economic sociology at Stanford, and urban sociology at the University of Chicago. Walter (Woody) Powell is Jacks Family Professor of Education, Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, and Communication at Stanford University, where he has also served as the faculty codirector of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society since its founding in 2006. At PACS, he leads the Civic Life of Cities Lab. His interests focus on the processes through which ideas and practices move across organizations, and the role of networks in facilitating or hindering the transfer of ideas. His most recent books are The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, coedited with Patricia Bromley (Stanford University Press), and The Emergence of Organizations and Markets, with John Padgett (Princeton University Press).


As our emphasis is on formal organizations belonging to civil society broadly construed, we use the term “civil society organizations.” We acknowledge that such organizations have different names in different parts of the world—nonprofit organizations, NGOs, associations, etc.—and are not inclusive of all forms of “civic action” (Lichterman 2020). See Powell (2020) for a further discussion.


Due to time constraints and competing demands during the compilation of this collection, we were unable to include an article on a seventh city—Taipei.


Sennett attributes the idea to Kant (1784): “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

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