voluntary associations in the U.S.
With all of the talk and debate about nonprofits, it seems like an opportune time to share a book review I’ve written about Politics and Partnerships: The Role of Voluntary Associations in America’s Political Past and Present by Elisabeth Clemens and Doug Guthrie.
Voluntary associations play a vital, although sometimes not very visible, role in American society as engines of innovation in political and civic life. Associations create much of the fabric that weaves social life together, whether through generating social capital by linking people to others in their community or by constructing identities around which people organize and find meaning. Yet, for all their importance, voluntary associations often receive the short end of the stick in organization theory. Perhaps because they are seen as so different from firms as to need their own theories or because organizational scholars increasingly reside in business schools where there is more interest in for-profit organizations, voluntary associations have taken a backseat to firms as the focal unit in organizational theory. A negative side effect of ignoring associations in organizational theory, of course, is that we fail to fully understand the integrative role they play in society, linking the domains of market and state and serving as key nodes in civil society. The editors of this volume, Elisabeth Clemens and Doug Guthrie, have gathered a diverse and interdisciplinary set of scholarly voices to provide a rich overview of the organized nature of American voluntarism. The contributors emphasize that voluntary associations have historically been central players in the U.S. business and political worlds, and although the nature of voluntary associations has changed in recent years, their centrality has not waned.
I took away two main themes from this engaging book. The first is that associations are intermediary organizations that bridge somewhat distinct societal domains – like market and state – and that this position often makes them innovators and sources of institutional change. At the same time, sitting between varying domains puts associations at risk of becoming co-opted by one or more powerful parties, potentially losing their influence as voices of their community, and being subjected to accountability standards that may run counter to their original mission. The second theme is that, perhaps because of their interstitial status, associations are often commissioned to take on institution changing agendas that help extend the reach of state and market actors into local communities. For example, the Bush administration famously pushed legislation that allows faith-based organizations to administer public welfare services at a greater scale, and business corporations have partnered with charitable associations to promote an image of social responsibility. Given these partnering efforts, associations may struggle to maintain their own identities and may risk becoming impersonal, professionalized, and bureaucratized.
Clemens and Guthrie address both themes in their opening chapter. They argue that there was a dramatic increase in the number of nonprofit associations following World War II because of the increasing willingness of states to grant corporate charters to voluntary associations and because new tax incentives infused the sector with additional financial resources. Contemporary associations have evolved several notable characteristics. First, nonprofit organizations have become intensely engaged in the governmental provision of public goods and the distribution of business charity. Second, new intermediary nonprofits have emerged to help broker relationships between business corporations and nonprofit recipients of philanthropy. The primary role of these intermediaries is to facilitate public-private coalitions to help create public goods, like community development and the building of low-income housing. Finally, as voluntary associations have become more dependent on corporate funding and more responsible for public services, they also face stricter accountability standards, leading to a greater emphasis on measurable outcomes and performance indicators. As a consequence many nonprofit organizations have adopted a managerialist orientation. Running voluntary associations has increasingly become the domain of professional managers, leaving less room for local, grass roots organizers.
A number of chapters in the volume primarily focus on the mediating roles of associations and of their potential for linking different societal domains and spurring institutional change. Johann Neem examines the role of civil society organizations in building a national identity in the post-colonial United States. Her historical research reveals that inasmuch as the U.S. government in its founding years tried to impose a national identity on its constituents, the citizenry embraced a local orientation, but ironically as the federal government’s strategy shifted to empowering local civic organizations, national patriotism flourished. Once freed from the monopolization of the state, partisan and religious groups created communities that were free to theorize what it meant to be American on their own terms rather than as dictated by the state. Mark Hendrickson’s chapter chronicles the rise of the “associative state” in the 1920s, a time in which government increasingly turned to experts in nongovernmental organizations to develop public solutions to social problems and to build legitimacy for these projects among the business elite and voting public. The associative state of the 1920s became a blueprint for future state welfare provision, including that of the current era. Elisabeth Clemens follows the evolution of state-nonprofit partnership during the onset of the Depression. Overwhelmed with welfare needs, the Roosevelt administration took a more interventionist approach to offering public assistance, using nonprofit charities as incubators for innovative ideas that could then become more widespread in government programs.
Clemens’s chapter also indicates, however, that the success of associationalism in solving national social problems may contribute to the demise of their activist, entrepreneurial spirit. Infused with government resources, charities grew to a national scale and formed long-term relationships with the state. Many of these once-grass roots organizations have since become professionalized bureaucracies. Alyshia Gálvez’s contribution provides a more contemporary and up-close illustration of this process of associational bureaucratization. Her account of a Mexican immigrant organization – Tepeyac de New York – that changed rapidly after assuming the role of service provider for immigrant families whose relatives lives were lost in the 9/11 attack demonstrates how a voluntary association transforms as it expands in scale and geographical scope.
Another set of chapters illustrates how, even as associations continue to be innovative and generate new templates for organizing, they are still susceptible to being captured by powerful parties. For example, Michael McQuarrie’s paper assesses the emergence of community development corporations as nonprofit organizations designed to mediate between business interests, community members, and local government officials doing urban renewal projects. Using Cleveland as a case study, McQuarrie finds that community development corporations became institutional innovators inasmuch as they facilitated partnerships between actors in the community who drew on very different institutional logics. Disappointingly, however, McQuarrie’s study also reveals that, like the TVA of Selznick, as these community development corporations evolve, their missions may be co-opted by the parties most intensely involved in the projects, and the least involved – who are also usually the most politically vulnerable – actors are left behind. James Evans shows that nonprofit research institutions, which were designed to be “spanning organizations” between academia and the market, have gradually adopted the academic standards of universities and have failed to fully realize their integrative potential. Omri Elisha’s chapter examines a white Evangelical megachurch’s outreach to a smaller black congregation, demonstrating how patterns of inequality were reinforced by the imposition of accountability standards and moral authority by the more domineering white organization.
Other chapters in the book address how different actors have used the associational organizational form to covertly push their own private agendas. Alice O’Connor’s chapter argues that in the 1970s and 1980s the corporate elite mobilized to establish a foothold in the nonprofit sector, which they saw as too liberal, to promote a pro-capitalist ideology that served their corporate and family interests. Their burgeoning movement built a robust network of politically engaged associations and foundations that would further neoconservative ideals in government policymaking. Doug Guthrie’s chapter examines patterns of corporate philanthropy, finding that although nonprofits receive a relatively small portion of their budget from corporations, charitable giving is a critical avenue for companies seeking to connect with their communities and to improve their public images. Nicole Marwell’s chapter examines the role of community based organizations, which emerged in the 1960s to help fight the War on Poverty but that have since developed as key players in urban political machines, helping to link politicians to voters and in turn receiving patronage benefits.
Organizational scholars will surely appreciate this volume’s message about the innovative roles of intermediary associations; however, I found the most intriguing aspect of the volume was that the authors showed how, in a variety of settings, power and political dynamics often prevented the full realization of associations’ transformative potential. Focusing only on associations’ transformative abilities may cause us to gloss over their susceptibility to co-optation and mission drift. But as many of the authors observe, it may be a normal part of the associational life cycle that they become bureaucratized or co-opted and lose some of that transformative potential once they have successfully initiated even moderate change. Associations arise to create a new community hub of innovation and change, only to later be captured by powerful members of that community seeking to use the association for its own instrumental purposes. The repeating nature of this story in the history of American associations also suggests a strong likelihood that a new generation of associations will emerge to fill the space left behind by institutionalized associations. This is a hopeful message for American civic life, which the book so ably demonstrates depends on these associations for sustenance and vitality. The perhaps surprising message for organizational scholars is that the health of the other organizational fields that dominate our attention – like the corporate world or entrepreneurial organizations – also depends on a strong set of voluntary associations inasmuch as associations provide new templates for organizing and create intimate community links. For that message alone, this is a book that warrants our attention.