Urban Nonprofit Leaders Increasingly Influence Local Development

Against a backdrop of declining public-sector funding, the growing influence of the private sector, and a renewed focus on public-private partnerships, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhoods is changing, CityLab reports.

According to Jeremy Levine, an assistant professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan who has been tracking interactions between community-based nonprofits, city leaders, and private companies in Boston, nonprofits in many low-income neighborhoods are no longer seen as extensions of the state or as agents of special interests but rather as "legitimate representatives" of the public will whose authority "supersedes" that of local elected officials.

The phenomenon is particular to low-income communities where the need for social services is greatest, CityLab reports. In many instances, they also tend to be the places where the voices of local residents go unheard. In Flint, Michigan, for example, residents' concerns about the local water supply were ignored by elected officials until nonprofits stepped in to address the issue. "There's a political vacancy in these poor neighborhoods," said Levine, "that these organizations can fill."

It's a role, however, that many nonprofit leaders are leery of. While nonprofits empowered in this way frequently are able to mobilize a stronger and more unified response to gentrification and displacement, environmental racism, and other structural inequities, they also have to be careful about monopolizing civic space — not least because if they fail, there often is no one to take their place.

"We do make an effort to not supersede local government," said Brittany Bradd, executive director of the Brightmoor Artisans Collective, a community-based organization in Detroit. "We instead try to work alongside of them to increase communication between the residents and the government officials. At times, [however], it is necessary to fill in the gaps when the government is unable to provide what is necessary."

Tanvi Misra. "When Nonprofits Are the New City Leaders." CityLab 11/10/2016. Jeremy Levine. "In Many Poor Urban Neighborhoods, Nonprofits Are Superseding Elected Politicians as Neighborhood Representatives." London School of Economics U.S. Centre Blog Post 11/07/2016.