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Indeed, in one version of liberal theory, government can do nothing for citizens that a complex array of mutual-benefit societies could not in principle do better and less coercively. --Elkin (1985, 1)
Students of local politics have long recognized a distinction between electoral and governing coalitions. Although local political leaders need to be elected to become effective policy makers, successful policy almost always requires the active support of a broader community coalition. A large case-study literature describes ways in which specific community and political leaders have been able to forge coalitions capable of reaching concrete goals. Greenstone and Peterson (1973) argued that the Community Action Program of the War on Poverty, which attempted to incorporate the interests of the poor directly into the local political regime, was a direct challenge to conventional local politics. A more recent literature has revealed strategies used by local leaders over the past decade to enlist public and private resources to spur the rebuilding of central cities (see, e.g., Stone and Sanders 1987; Jones and Bachelor 1993; Swanstrom 1985; Mollenkopf 1983; DeLeon 1992). Examples of this can be witnessed in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. Typically, these coalitions are informal and quite often hidden from the public eye.
In this article, we explore the emergence of another form of public-private collaboration in which efforts are made to aggregate individual preferences within the framework of a broad-based nonprofit organization. Following Ferris (1994), we will refer to these organizations as governing nonprofits. (1) Governing nonprofits play an important political role in a number of U.S. cities, a role quite different from that of traditional nonprofits or local interest groups. Governing nonprofits are not extensively focused on the production of a specific product or service as are traditional nonprofits, nor do they establish a narrow service strategy with a well-defined constituency and a committed donor base. Rather, their goals and missions are framed on very broad social and political issues. Governing nonprofits are also distinct from local interest groups, which seek to influence concrete political decisions; rather, these nonprofits seek to forge coalitions among various groups and across multiple organizations and sectors in an effort to address chronic societal problems by increasing the capacity of the local political system (Jackson 1997). Obviously, these differences are in degrees rather than absolutes. Governing nonprofits often provide some direct services and actively pursue specific policy outcomes. However, the defining characteristics of a governing nonprofit include an emphasis on a very broad policy agenda and a commitment to restructure the local political process as a means to implement that agenda.
The following four basic assumptions underlie our understanding of governing nonprofits. These assumptions are drawn from two distinct, yet equally informative, literatures: urban politics and nonprofit organizations. First, broad collective interests exist that are not adequately represented in current governing regimes. Second, it is possible to form viable political coalitions. Third, nonprofit organizations can serve as a viable platform for the aggregation of collective interests, including underrepresented interests. Fourth, the nonprofit sector is capable of marshaling the social resources necessary to restructure the dominant political authority to better represent those collective interests.
We examine these claims in the context of three U.S. cities: Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In our analysis, we will focus on political roles played by a specific nonprofit organization in each city. (2) In Baltimore, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) operates as a community coalition to promote directly the interest of low-income neighborhoods. Created in the aftermath of civil disturbances in the late 1960s, New Detroit seeks to promote racial harmony and economic development in Detroit. Following civil unrest in the early 1990s, RLA (denoting Rebuild Los Angeles; the early name of the organization was Rebuild L.A.) was created to promote economic revitalization in distressed areas of Los Angeles.
Political change has long been a major concern in the discipline of political science. We begin this analysis with a discussion of the process by which local policy is reconstructed. We then examine the scope and nature of nonprofits as local political actors. After providing an outline of our methodology, we present case studies of governing nonprofits in Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles. We discuss our analysis and collective lessons from these cases, closing with some observations concerning governing nonprofits and their potential impact on local public policy.
RESTRUCTURING LOCAL POLICY SUBSYSTEMS
Scholars studying local politics have long focused on the process by which political leaders transform preferences into public policy. Clearly, the control of the formal organs of government is not sufficient. Rather, one must build an effective governing coalition that has the capacity to marshal private as well as public resources. On the basis of an extensive case study of Atlanta, Stone (1989) documented how such a political regime has effectively dominated that city. Many other scholars have documented the existence (and in some cases, the absence) of such a governing coalition (e.g., DeLeon 1992; Mollenkopf 1983; Swanstrom 1985). The key point in our analysis, however, Is not so much that a governing coalition exists but that the composition of such a coalition can have a concrete impact on policy outcomes in the community. As Stone, Orr, and Imbroscio (1991, 224) observed,
Policy making is thus not simply a matter of choosing a
reasonable coarse of action; it is shaped by the composition
of the governing coalition, the terms that underlie the
cooperation of coalition members with each other, and the
resources they are capable of assembling.
Peterson (1981) and others have argued that economic constraints facing local government largely drive local public policy. Even so, we contend that it is the interplay between economic constraints and political realities that can ultimately influence local policy making. Thus, like Stone (1989), we argue that politics makes a difference. Consider the process by which new ideas are successfully incorporated into ongoing political agendas. Although there is no clear consensus on how such change occurs, there is little doubt that a systemic bias against change does exist. Seldom are new ideas accepted solely on the basis of their intellectual brilliance. Politics is fundamentally a process of conflict, with winners determined by the mix of those who are actually engaged in the process. This essential point was made by Schattschneider (1960, 4) when arguing that the scope of political conflict is a key determinant in how that issue is resolved:
The most important strategy of politics is concerned with the scope
of conflict. Imagine what might happen if there were a hundred times
as many spectators on the fringes of conflict who sympathized with
Able rather than Bart. Able would have a strong motivation for
trying to spread the conflict while Bart would have an overwhelming
interest in keeping it private. It follows that conflicts are
frequently won or lost by the success that the contestants have in
getting the audience involved in the fight or excluding it, as the
case may be.
Numerous scholars have documented the segmentation and specialization that tends to occur within substantive policy areas. These policy centers have been labeled in a variety of ways including policy subsystems, iron triangles, and policy monopolies. Baumgartner and Jones (1993) stressed that policy monopolies not only have a clear institutional structure that is charged with making decisions but also operate within a broad sense of legitimacy that supports the institutional base of the monopoly. This legitimacy plays a key role in understanding how policy monopolies function and how they might be challenged by competing interests.
Although this notion of a policy subsystem provides a useful static model for describing how local policy is set, it is important not to overstate the degree of policy autonomy that exists at the local level. Baumgartner and Jones (1993) correctly noted that policy monopolies are seldom complete and are never totally effective. The obvious facts are that policy does change over time and that these changes often have profound distributional effects that must be explained. However, most significant policy shifts are not as much the result of reorienting or restructuring existing policy subsystems as the overwhelming of the existing decision structure by external events or a new set of actors operating from a new venue within the political system. Baumgartner and Jones (p. 38) described this process in some detail:
We have argued thus far that the existence of numerous independent
decision-making subsystems in American polities provides stability
in the policy making process. But the exclusion of the apathetic also
provides a potential destabilizing force as policy entrepreneurs try
to redefine issues to appeal to them. If these new groups enter the
political fray, existing policy monopolies can be upset.
Building on Baumgartner and Jones, we argue that the nonprofit sector offers one avenue through which new groups can enter the political process and eventually restructure existing policy subsystems.
NONPROFITS AS POLITICAL ACTORS: AN OVERVIEW
A key aspect of the study of politics is the identification of the appropriate function and structure of institutions in a civil society. One institution that is often neglected in these studies is the nonprofit sector. (3) It is this component to which we now turn. Specifically, what role do nonprofits play in restructuring local policy agendas? Evidence does exist that agenda transformation can be facilitated by the operation of a nonprofit, In many cities across the country, strong new political coalitions have been forged around economic development efforts. Such efforts have often been targeted at downtown redevelopment, sometimes with spectacular results. Residents of Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other cities have seen much of their downtown rebuilt during the last decade. Often this redevelopment was organized and directed by nonprofit organizations acting with some independence from local authorities. Although public investment was critical to the work of these organizations, success required an enormous private investment. Although actors from the private sector undoubtedly were motivated by a public spirit for their community, the strongest motivation to participate in renewal programs was economic return (Judd and Parkinson 1990; Fainstein et. al 1986; Stone and Sanders 1987).
It is by no means certain that a successful local coalition can be formed around other issues, but the history of local economic development efforts does seem to offer a potential path to genuine systemic reforms efforts. (4) There is little debate that many of these efforts were successful in meeting their goals; nevertheless, both practical and normative issues have been raised. On a practical level, community leaders wonder whether similar coalitions might be created to address more fundamental issues of social and human capital formation in cities. Some observers have raised more fundamental questions about such coalitions, arguing that some cities rely upon agencies that are essentially private to develop and implement policy. These private quasi governments are thought to reduce public accountability and unfairly reinforce the interests of economic elites, who are often central to the coalition. These issues aside, few would challenge the assertion that the nation's urban areas are in dire need of renewed governance processes.
On the whole, government has appeared unresponsive, cumbersome, and inefficient. This perception of the public sector has many sources, including a general lack of faith in government, acknowledged resource constraints, perceived shortsightedness of political leaders, and a lack of broad-based political support for social and political action. It is hardly surprising that there appears to be an increasing interest in having the nonprofit sector engage long-term social and economic problems, given widespread cynicism about the capacity of government. Such cynicism is particularly strong in our nation's large cities, which are viewed by many citizens as essentially ungovernable.
The multiple roles played by nonprofits are widely recognized. What is surprising, however, is the nontraditional mission embraced by some nonprofits. Consider the more traditional service-provider role of nonprofit organizations. A good deal of historical evidence demonstrates that nonprofits have played an important social role in defining and acting on collective concerns. Working alone or in conjunction with business …