Research Report The State and Future of the National Social Sector Infrastructure
Laura Tomasko, Benjamin Soskis, Hannah Martin, Faith Mitchell, Alan Abramson
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This report examines the state of the national social sector infrastructure—which we define as the support system that helps the social sector thrive—and discusses how to strengthen it. We explore the challenges and opportunities of growth in the social sector infrastructure, inequities and disparities in the social sector and its infrastructure, and the importance of well-being. Within these themes, we offer suggestions for the future. We hope our findings will help social sector infrastructure providers, funders, and users understand the current state of the national social sector infrastructure and gain insight into how they can help strengthen it.

Why this matters

The social sector of the United States is vital to the functioning of our democratic society, and it needs a strong support system—or infrastructure—to help it thrive. With an understanding of the current state of the national social sector infrastructure and the ways in which it needs to evolve, infrastructure providers, funders, and users can strengthen it and in turn, help the social sector meet its full potential.

Key takeaways

We explore three themes: challenges and opportunities of social sector infrastructure growth, inequities and disparities in the social sector and its infrastructure, and the importance of well-being for staff and leadership in the social sector and its infrastructure.

Challenges and Opportunities of Social Sector Infrastructure Growth

Participants in our study celebrated the growth of the national social sector infrastructure but noted that it comes with challenges, including defining infrastructure and communicating its value, choosing among its increasing offerings, and assessing the quality of its services. Further, participants emphasized that the national social sector infrastructure is underresourced and that its services are unaffordable to some users.

We offer objectives from our research on how infrastructure providers, funders, and users can communicate the value and importance of infrastructure, help the social sector understand the infrastructure services that are available, and improve the quality of infrastructure services.

Inequities in the Social Sector and Its Infrastructure

Participants described inequities and disparities in the social sector and its infrastructure. Most often, they mentioned disparities related to size and inequities in funding. They noted that large-scale philanthropy, whether institutions or individual donors, and large nonprofits seem to have more infrastructure services and opportunities than small nonprofits, everyday donors, and volunteer-led or unincorporated groups. And they noted inequities in historical funding patterns between organizations that are led by and serve BIPOC people (Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color) and other marginalized communities with respect to geographic location, language, disability, sexual orientation, and class, for example, versus the rest of the social sector. Additionally, participants mentioned inequities and disparities between start-ups and large, mature organizations versus medium-sized and “teenage” (also known as mezzanine) organizations, and they discussed a lack of diversity among infrastructure staff and leadership with respect to race and ethnicity, religion, and lived experience.

We offer objectives from our research on how infrastructure funders can help improve equity, how infrastructure providers can appreciate community context and identity to best meet the needs of the people and organizations they serve, and how technology can promote accessibility.

The Importance of Well-Being

Participants expressed concerns related to a lack of well-being for staff and leadership in the social sector and its infrastructure. These well-being challenges are not new, but have been exacerbated by the challenges of the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, economic precarity, climate change, and polarization in American society.

We offer an objective from our research on how infrastructure providers, funders, and users can help identify and prevent burnout among staff and leaders and meet their needs.

Further reading

To learn how we developed our definitions of the social sector and its infrastructure, please read our report, The Social Sector Infrastructure: Defining and Understanding the Concept.

To read our definitions, please see our social sector infrastructure infographic.

To explore our definitions further and see examples of infrastructure providers and activities, please visit our feature, Exploring the Social Sector Infrastructure.

To dive deeper into the financing of the national social sector infrastructure, please read our report, An Overview of the Financing of National Social Sector Infrastructure Providers.

For further guidance on steps to strengthen the infrastructure, please read A Guide to Strengthening the National Social Sector Infrastructure: Objectives and Action Steps.

This publication is part of a larger project on the social sector infrastructure.

Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Charitable giving Data and technology capacity of nonprofits Foundations and philanthropy Impact investing Nonprofit data and statistics Nonprofit sector trends Race and equity in grantmaking Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial and ethnic disparities Social sector infrastructure Volunteering
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
Research Methods Data analysis Data collection Qualitative data analysis Quantitative data analysis