Contexts/Settings: Agencies and Organizations in Nonprofit Settings
- Jennifer E. MosleyJennifer E. MosleySchool of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago
Nonprofit organizations serve a wide variety of functions and play a particularly important role in providing needed social services in the United States. This entry begins by exploring the roles and origins of the nonprofit sector, reporting on its current scope and scale, and reviewing federal regulations governing nonprofit organizations. Special attention is then given to understanding human service organizations and their financing, including the implications of changing government-nonprofit relationships. Four additional issues facing the sector—accountability, technology, political participation, and diversity, as well as recommendations for meeting future challenges, are also discussed.
Updated in this version
Updated to reflect recent literature and research in the non-profit human service sectors.
The diverse set of organizations known as the nonprofit sector has recently been gaining in both influence and recognition, as it is increasingly being called upon to help strengthen communities, promote civil society, and meet new human service needs (Salamon, 2002). Best known in social work as the organizational form most human service organizations take, “nonprofit” is the term now commonly used to describe organizations that often used to be called “charities” or voluntary agencies. Unique because of their dependence on donations or grants from outside the organization (by individuals, foundations, government), nonprofits exist to serve the public, as opposed to private, good.
The term “nonprofit” is synonymous with “not-for-profit” and serves as a counterpoint to the business, or for-profit, sector. Nonprofits are bound by the nondistribution constraint, meaning that when they do make a profit, they must invest those profits back into the organization or use them to subsidize future programmatic efforts rather than distributing those profits to individual stakeholders in the organization in the way that for-profit businesses do. Other terms are also used to refer to the nonprofit sector. It is alternatively known as the “third” sector (after the governmental “first” sector and the commerce-oriented, profit-making/proprietary “second”), the voluntary sector, and the independent sector.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is another term sometimes used when referring to nonprofit organizations, often implying organizations that work internationally.
Nonprofits operate all over the world and in many different fields, including human services, arts and culture, health care, education, and civil rights. For example, hospitals, day care centers, art museums, community action groups, and softball leagues can all be nonprofits because all are credited with serving the public good in some way. Foundations, such as the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are also nonprofits, as are most religious organizations and congregations. Great diversity also exists in the size of nonprofits. Nonprofits vary from multibillion dollar corporations, such as Kaiser Hospitals or Harvard University, to tiny all-volunteer networks operating in low-income rural areas. Despite the diversity of the field, all nonprofits do share some features in common. In their cross-national work, Salamon and Anheier (1992) have suggested that five defining elements must be present for an entity to be considered a nonprofit. They must be (a) actual organizations, not just a single person, (b) private and nongovernmental, (c) nondistributing of profits, (d) self-governing, and (e) containing elements of voluntarism.
Oversight and Regulation
In the United States, although informal organizations run on a voluntary basis are also considered part of the nonprofit sector, organizations are usually considered to be a nonprofit based on their tax status with the federal Internal Revenue Service. Nonprofits are officially recognized by the U.S. government if they show that they are organized for public purposes. They are then regulated and defined under section 501 of the federal tax code and are granted tax-exempt status. There are 25 different subsections under section 501; the tax status granted depends primarily on what the overall function of the organization is, how it is structured, and whom it benefits. Nonprofits are also subject to a variety of state-level regulation and reporting.
Section 501(c)(3) is reserved for organizations serving what the IRS considers religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes. Most social service organizations have 501(c)(3) status. Only 501(c)(3)s qualify for the important benefit that contributions made to the organization are tax-deductible for the donor. This is an extremely important incentive for donors and is critical in fund-raising for many of these organizations. For this reason most organizations that are eligible file as public charities, under section 501(c)(3).
The second most common subsection is 501(c)(4), which the IRS terms the “civic leagues and social welfare organizations.” These are organizations considered to be “member-serving” rather than “public-serving,” and thus donations to 501(c)(4)s are not tax-deductible. Examples of 501(c)(4) organizations are service clubs, such as the Lions and Kiwanis, as well as the main arms of political organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another primary distinction between 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s is in regard to legal restrictions on their political participation. Although nonprofit advocacy has long been recognized as an important vehicle for citizens to express their political preferences, one form of advocacy, namely lobbying, which is defined as the attempt to influence specific pieces of legislation, is limited, though not prohibited, for 501(c)(3)s. This is primarily due to the tax-deductible donations received by 501(c)(3)s. If lobbying was unlimited for these organizations, wealthy donors could write off their political activities simply by lobbying through 501(c)(3) organizations. However, it is not limited for 501(c)(4)s. Other forms of advocacy, such as public education or providing information to government committees, are not limited for either type of organization. Partisan communications directly related to an election are prohibited for 501(c)(3)s and limited for 501(c)(4)s (Reid, 2006).
In terms of internal oversight, nonprofits are generally governed by volunteer boards of directors, which oversee a paid executive director, who manages the day-to-day operations of the organization. Board members are responsible for providing financial oversight, selecting the management team for the organization, helping to determine the mission and ongoing strategy of the organization, and monitoring performance, among other things. The board is legally, fiscally, and publicly accountable to the outside stakeholders of the organization, such as donors, consumers, staff, and the community at large. Ensuring accountability requires maintenance of clear written policies, careful communication about expectations and priorities, and efforts to maintain transparency in operations (Holland, 2003). The struggles many nonprofits face in meeting accountability standards will be discussed more at the end of this entry.
Scope and Scale of the Nonprofit Sector
The latest version of the Nonprofit Almanac (Roeger, Blackwood, & Pettijohn, 2011) gives an overview of the scope and scale of the nonprofit sector in the United States, as well as patterns of growth. The authors report that, nationally, about 1,007,384 (70%) of the ∼1.4 million nonprofits in the United States have 501(c)(3) status. The number of 501(c)(3)s grew by about 59% from 1999 to 2009. There are ∼112,000 organizations registered as 501(c)(4)s. Religious congregations, another large group of nonprofit organizations, are not required to file with the IRS, and there are about 354,000 of them according to estimates. All together, nonprofit organizations involve more than 6 million volunteers and employ more than 11 million people (9.3% of all American workers). Previous versions of the Almanac reported that the employment rate in the nonprofit sector was growing at about 3.2% a year, which is faster than either the government or business sectors. That said, the annual wage paid to a nonprofit worker remains almost $10,000 a year less than that earned by a worker who is not employed in the nonprofit sector, an enduring problem for recruitment and maintenance of a quality workforce in the nonprofit sector (Weitzman, Jalandoni, Lampkin, & Pollak, 2002).
Figures from the 2011 Nonprofit Almanac indicate that most nonprofits fall on the smaller side of the spectrum. For 501(c)(3) organizations, about 46% have expenditures less than $100,000 annually, and about 83% have expenditures below $500,000. Only 4% have expenditures over $10 million. Organizational size is not distributed evenly among all areas of nonprofit activity, however. Health-related nonprofits tend to be the largest, followed by educational and human service nonprofits. In regard to the number of non-profits operating in each area, human service organizations make up about 34% of 501(c)(3)s, education 18%, health 12%, and arts and culture 11%.
Nonprofit organizations are not new. The Elizabethan Poor Laws and subsequent poor law reforms in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries codified the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, with religious and voluntary organizations (that is to say, nonprofits) taking care of the deserving poor, and state-run workhouses being run to house the undeserving. The United States largely inherited and then adapted this system to the developing American society. In this way, social work has long been associated with the nonprofit sector through the concept of charitable work. Early settlement houses and child protection societies important to social work history, such as Hull-House and the Children’s Aid Society, can be considered nonprofit organizations. Other large historical social service nonprofits also have a long history. For example, the YMCA was founded in 1851, the Salvation Army in 1878, and the United Way in 1887.
Several different theories purport to explain the origin of the nonprofit sector, and how the division of labor between it, government, and the for-profit sector came about. These theories are generally complementary rather than exclusive. Traditionally, economic theories have focused on three forms of “failure”: market failure, government failure, and voluntary failure. Market failure, most closely associated with the work of Hansmann (1980, 1987), asserts that under conditions of information asymmetry, where the provider of services has more information about the quality of service provided than the consumer does, profiteering is likely, and it is thought that the nondistribution constraint mentioned earlier makes nonprofits less likely to participate in that kind of behavior. A social service example of this is in day care centers, inpatient mental health facilities, or nursing homes, where the user of the service may not be able to reliably report on the quality of the services they are receiving. From this perspective, nonprofits exist to provide a more trustworthy alternative to for-profit services.
Government failure, most closely associated with the work of Weisbrod (1975), asserts that because of what is known as demand heterogeneity—the fact that in a pluralist society different people will have different needs and desires for public goods—the government will be able to meet the needs of only the “median voter” or average citizen. In this view, nonprofits exist to fill the gaps that government leaves unfilled, providing services to niche groups. Human service examples include innovative art and music therapies and faith-based services.
Voluntary failure, most closely associated with the work of Salamon (1987), identifies four failures on the part of nonprofit organizations, all of which are highly applicable to the human services sector. First is philanthropic insufficiency—nonprofits will never be able to sufficiently and reliably provide all the services that are necessary because of inadequate resources. There is also a lack of incentive for people to contribute toward or pay for services that they can partake in even if they do not have to pay for them (otherwise known as the free rider problem [Olson, 1965]). Second is philanthropic particularism—nonprofit organizations and the foundations and individuals that donate to them will have a tendency to focus on some groups or problems to the exclusion of others, such as providing services only for the “deserving” poor such as the elderly and children. Third is philanthropic paternalism—related to the above, this is when nonprofit organizations provide services or address problems that they think need addressing, but may not necessarily be what society or the client wants or needs. Clearly, both philanthropic particularism and paternalism raise strong social justice concerns. Fourth is philanthropic amateurism—poorly funded nonprofit organizations may be more highly dependent on volunteers and low-skilled workers than on professionals, leading to a lack of expertise in dealing with complex social problems. Voluntary failure theory essentially turns the tables on the other two failure theories, explaining why we need both nonprofit and government-provided services.
Although these leading theories are economic in nature, Clemens (2006) points out they are quite consistent with dominant political theories, which have focused on a market model of democracy wherein decisions about which public goods will be provided by government and which will be left to the residual nonprofit sector are made by individuals expressing preferences through voting. Other political conceptions of the nonprofit sector have focused on other important roles of voluntary organizations, such as in providing outlets for civic engagement and representing diverse interests in a pluralistic society (Putnam, 1993; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Lohmann’s (1992) conception of the “commons” and the noninstrumental rewards and benefits of nonprofit membership are also related to this role of the sector. It is argued that in a liberal democracy, people should join together in associations to make their voices heard and to combine resources for collective action, and nonprofit organizations are the result of this process. Early chronicler of culture and society in the United States, de Tocqueville (1969, p. 513), noted in the early 1800s that, unlike their European counterparts, Americans were “forever forming associations” to solve community problems, regulate collective goods, or provide services that government was not providing.
Boris (1999) highlights four special roles of the nonprofit sector that capture much of the intent of the literature summarized earlier. First, they serve to build social capital, or networks of trust and cooperation between people, mostly through membership groups, but also through voluntarism. Second, they facilitate civic involvement and political engagement. It is through nonprofits that regular citizens express their views and get involved in politics, from a neighborhood reform level, such as a concerned parents group, to a professional level, such as a local social service agency, to the national level, such as think tanks and professional interest groups. Third, they safeguard and promote cultural, religious, and artistic pursuits and values. Last, they provide services government and business either cannot or would not provide.
Nonprofit Human Service Organizations
Human service organizations, a slightly broader term for what are also called social service organizations, are generally formed as nonprofits and are of special interest to the social work profession. Hasenfeld (1983, p. 1) defines them as “that set of organizations whose principal function is to protect, maintain, or enhance the personal wellbeing of individuals by defining, shaping, or altering their personal attributes.” Agencies that provide material goods and support, individual and family services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, residential care, child care, job training, and services to the elderly and disabled are all examples of human service organizations.
This wide range of services has resulted in a very large and diverse sector. Data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics give a rough idea of the number of human service nonprofits operating in different fields. Using a very inclusive definition of what fields fall into the broad category of human service, their online database shows the sector breaking down as follows for 2006. Out of a total of about 285,684 organizations, 28% were multipurpose, 25% recreation and leisure, 13% health, 9% housing and shelter, 6% youth development, 6% mental health, 4% crime and legal, 4% public safety, 3% employment, and 2% food, agriculture, and nutrition.
The typical human service organization is financed by a combination of individual donations, foundation grants, government grants and contracts, and client fees. The most current information from the Nonprofit Almanac (Weitzman et al., 2002) reports that contributions from individuals and foundations comprise about 18% of the average organizations budget, while government grants make up about 23%. Revenue from fees and government contracts make up about half the budget (the way that nonprofits are asked to report this information makes it impossible to tease apart using official IRS data), and income from other sources, such as investment income and income from special events, makes up the remaining 10%.
This funding arrangement can be difficult for organizations to manage for many reasons. As will be seen here, government grants and contracts are fraught with time-consuming difficulties, including the need to meet extensive reporting requirements, which can be a major drain on staff time. For this reason, as well as others, government funding tends to go to larger organizations with greater capacity and organizational resources. Foundation funding generally comes in smaller amounts and is limited to specific programs. Most foundations like to see themselves as innovators and incubators, giving organizations funds to start new programs. They then expect the organization to find additional funding after the program has completed its grant. They tend not to support the same programs for years on end, and grants for general operating expenses are rare. These types of grants are highly coveted, however, as they allow the most freedom and flexibility on the part of the organization to spend the money how they best see fit.
Private donations are often small for the amount of effort that is spent recruiting them and many private donors, worried about funding “overhead,” place restrictions on how it may be spent. This trend made the national news in the aftermath of several recent disasters, including the trauma of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, and the Christmas Day 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. Many donors were outraged to discover that their contributions were going to pay for general organizational expenses rather than directly going to those affected by the tragedy. Communicating to donors that services cannot be provided if the organization cannot sustain itself is a difficult task for many nonprofits. Revenue from donations can also fluctuate greatly from year to year, making it a fairly undependable source of income for many organizations.
Finally, increasing revenue by charging fees to clients is a complicated endeavor for many human service nonprofits. Fees are an attractive source of revenue because they are fairly predictable and can be spent in flexible ways. However, many clients do not have the resources to pay for the full cost of their services, making an increase in the fees they pay an untenable solution. In addition, many human service nonprofits feel a mission to keep fees down so as to provide services to those who need them most. Nonprofits that are forced to rely more on fees may inadvertently exclude low-income people who depend on their services the most. Despite this, some studies indicate that reliance on fees is growing. Salamon (2002) reports that from 1977 income from fees rose over 500% in the nonprofit social service sector, the largest increase among the different funding types.
The above-mentioned information about how human service organizations are financed makes clear that government funding is a very large part of the budget for many human service organizations. This is largely the result of an increased trend toward the privatization of social services in the United States since the mid-1970s. Privatization is the word used to describe the turning over to the nonprofit sector, and in some cases the profit-making sector, the responsibility to provide services that used to be provided directly by the government. A reflection of the larger ideological shift toward neoliberalism, this trend began in the 1970s and 1980s because of fears that government-provided services were too inefficient and bureaucratic to be effective. Currently, the social service delivery system in the United States is very much a “partnership” between nonprofits and government, with government providing a large portion of the funding, but scaling back direct services in favor of contracting with nonprofits (Salamon, 1995).
Overall, privatization has created both opportunities and challenges for human service nonprofits. It has opened up new funding streams, but it has also led to a growth in the number of organizations and has increased competition. As a result of privatization, many human service nonprofits have become overly dependent on government funding and have begun to face increased scrutiny by the taxpaying public. Increased access to local government agencies has opened up opportunities for advocacy, but this closer coordination can also lead to legitimacy concerns, with clients or members of communities feeling as though the organization is more responsive to government needs than to their needs (Smith & Grønbjerg, 2006). Additionally, smaller human service nonprofits may be shut out from receiving government grants and contracts because of the enormous amount of paperwork and documentation required to both receive and maintain them. This has strong implications for the diversity of organizations in communities. Even the large traditional nonprofit human service organizations do not have a lock on these government dollars, however. Other recent trends and policy shifts have increased the amount of competition these traditional agencies experience in regard to both for-profit competitors and faith-based nonprofit providers (Smith, 2002).
Privatization is also related to two other issues that help create a complicated environment for human service nonprofits. These are devolution and marketization. Devolution, the transferring of decision-making and funding power to state and local government, is changing the environment for human service nonprofits significantly because it changes who is responsible for the decisions that impact them. Notable in the welfare reform changes of 1996, which has created a service environment where rules and regulations may change from state to state and county to county (De Vita, 1999). Devolution has also led to new government funding arrangements, such as block grants, managed care models, and performance-based contracts, all of which lead to an increasingly competitive funding environment for many human service nonprofits.
Marketization is the pressure for nonprofit organizations to adopt traditionally corporate marketing and management strategies. This pressure has grown largely because of the processes of privatization and devolution, which have resulted in increased reporting requirements and more competition. Marketization is a challenge for many human service nonprofits, such as those that are small, have alternative structures, or depend on nonprofessional staff (Alexander, Nank, & Stivers, 1999). Concern also exists that these pressures will lead human service nonprofits to lose their ability to meet the needs of niche communities and that the traditional values of the sector, such as public spirit and commitment to the public good, will be lost (van Til, 2000).
Current Issues Facing the Nonprofit Sector
Partly because of the changing government-nonprofit relations discussed above, the nonprofit sector currently faces a turbulent financial and political environment. Aside from the challenges and opportunities mentioned above, four others are highlighted here: accountability, technology, political participation, and diversity.
Nonprofits are often looked at as prime expressions of civil society and as an outlet for our best human impulses of charity and caring. However, they are sometimes seen in a more negative light. Although some in the nonprofit sector feel unfairly targeted, recent alleged ethics violations and mismanagement at major nonprofit organizations, such as the United Way, the Getty Trust, and the Red Cross, have raised concerns for many. In the wake of these scandals and other locally based stories of corruption, lawmakers and the press have recently become very concerned about accountability in the nonprofit sector. This is reflected in highly publicized ethics investigations, as well as significant new legislation that increases requirements and oversight for nonprofits in areas such as executive compensation, how audits are handled, and how fund-raising is reported. Although these measures are important for accountability, they can be very difficult to implement for small organizations.
The legislative trend toward more restrictive accounting and activities started at the federal level with passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. Although this law was primarily brought about because of concerns regarding corporate corruption, it has significant implications for the nonprofit community and contains two provisions that do require nonprofit compliance. Good governance practices required for for-profits and recommended but not required for nonprofits include disclosing financial conditions, prohibiting personal loans to executives, certifying financial statements, changing auditors on a regular basis, and having separate and independent audit committees. It should be noted, however, that many states, such as California and Virginia, have passed their own accountability legislation, which is often more rigorous than that of the federal government and can have greater requirements for nonprofits operating in those states.
Rapid developments in the technology environment have created several new opportunities for nonprofits. The Internet has allowed nonprofits to distribute information about their services, location, and areas of expertise, which has created major new marketing opportunities. It is also a powerful tool for soliciting online donations, particularly from new donors (Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha, 2004). It can facilitate both volunteer and staff recruitment, allowing organizations to choose from a broader pool of potential applicants. It can also facilitate an organization’s advocacy activity, allowing them to distribute their message to many more people, at a lower cost, and to notify stakeholders of important events (Reid, 2006). Additionally, clients can communicate with case managers, patients with nurses, or students with teachers through e-mail, allowing fewer staff members to serve more people in the same amount of time, reducing transportation costs for clients, and possibly reducing missed or cancelled appointments. Finally, the ease of securely sharing digital files allows small organizations to more easily outsource managerial and accounting functions (Tuckman & Chang, 2006).
Despite the important benefits that use of information technology may provide nonprofits, many organizations have struggled to keep pace because of financial constraints or a lack of knowledge about how to use these new technologies. Building and maintaining a website or other online presence that is effective, attractive, and up-to-date can be prohibitively expensive for nonprofits that do not generally have the necessary expertise themselves, leading to a disparity between wealthier and smaller nonprofits (Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha, 2004). Manzo and Pitkin (2007) support this finding, reporting that depending on their size and expertise, nonprofits face very different challenges in maintaining information technology infrastructures and that a significant percentage still do not have high-speed Internet, networked computers, or other relatively simple upgrades. The major barriers that they identified include a lack of funding for technology needs, high costs of maintenance, a lack of time to plan how to use it or to train staff, and a lack of access to needed expertise.
Finally, finding the financial resources and making the time commitment to participate in policy advocacy is a struggle for many nonprofits, especially human service nonprofits that are balancing their main commitment toward service provision (Berry, 2003). Many good reasons exist for human service nonprofits to participate in policy advocacy, though. As well as helping to secure a more stable funding environment for the organization itself, policy advocacy helps communicate the needs of their often marginalized and underrepresented clients to lawmakers. As human service nonprofits often have specialized knowledge regarding the challenges their clients face, communicating that information to policymakers can help improve policy and the lives of the clients themselves.
Despite these important reasons to participate in policy advocacy, however, most human service nonprofits have only limited advocacy programs, if they have them at all (Child & Grønbjerg, 2007). The reasons for this are many. Misunderstandings of the legal implications of advocacy for 501(c)(3)s is an important one (Berry, 2003), as are limitations in terms of financial capacity (Mosley, 2010), support from board members (Gibelman & Kraft, 1996), and skilled and committed leadership (De Vita, Montilla, Reid, & Fatiregun, 2004).
To overcome these barriers, researchers have suggested several solutions. Working in coalition can make it easier to maintain a long-term advocacy presence while possibly reducing risks and costs (Hula, 2000). The use of the Internet can be an effective and inexpensive tool for distributing an organizations advocacy message (McNutt & Boland, 1999). Finally, focusing on local policymakers and administrative agencies may lead to increased access for many nonprofits, while devolution has increased the power wielded by these local decision-makers (Sherraden, Slosar, & Sherraden, 2002).
Managing diversity is another challenge for many human service organizations. This problem is intensifying as the overall proportion of people of color in the United States is growing, and new waves of immigrants arrive. Meanwhile, many of these communities still face great difficulties in regard to economic, educational, and social marginalization. This pattern increases the need for quality human services directed at people of color, while systematic structural barriers limit their access to it. These structural barriers include transportation difficulties due to location of services outside minority neighborhoods, lack of availability of bilingual services and knowledge of what services are available, and underutilization of services due to cultural beliefs about help-seeking (Gutierrez, 1992). Additionally, many organizations struggle to maintain a board of directors and staff that reflect the ethnic diversity of their clients, which contributes to ongoing ethnocentrism within agencies. To make services more available, attractive, and sensitive to people of color, organizations need to continue to focus more on outreach and providing appropriate bilingual and bicultural services. This may require rethinking the mix of services provided, watching neighborhood demographics so as to be aware of unmet needs, and finding ways to more effectively incorporate feedback from community members.
Future Directions and Trends
Eisenberg (2000) gives several recommendations for how the nonprofit sector can address some of the challenges it is currently facing. Several recent congressional attempts to limit the rights of nonprofits that accept government funding to advocate on behalf of their clients require that nonprofits work to promote democracy through defending their advocacy rights. Given the increasingly close relationship between the nonprofit sector and government, nonprofits need to work to support and promote accountability and effectiveness in government, as well as within the nonprofit sector itself. The uneven funding environment that many nonprofits face may require reforming philanthropy so that funding of general operating support is more common. Finally, new leadership for the sector will also need to be developed, as many executive directors are nearing retirement age and talented young managers have not been systematically recruited or paid adequate salaries to ensure their continued commitment to leadership in the nonprofit, versus the for-profit, sector.
It is also important in this era of increasing competitiveness that human service nonprofits are aware of the importance of maintaining a clear commitment to their original mission and be able to articulate their values clearly. Frumkin and Andre-Clark (2000) argue that nonprofits are not well-placed to compete on a narrow efficiency basis with for-profit organizations and that uncritical acceptance of performance-based contracts and other market-related benchmarks is not the answer for long-term survival. For nonprofits to succeed in the current funding and policy environment, they must find a balance between efficiency, instrumentality, and their more expressive, mission-based reasons for existing. It is this commitment to a values-based role in society that makes nonprofit organizations and associations a unique alternative to for-profit or government-provided social services.
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