Urban Wire How Infrastructure Helps the Social Sector Thrive
Laura Tomasko, Faith Mitchell
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Volunteers handing out water bottles.

As we approach the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Day of Service and look back at the giving season, we consider the many forms generosity can take: giving time, money, goods, and more. These gifts help fuel the private organizations, groups, and individuals acting to advance social missions that we call the social sector.

During the National Day of Service and giving season, people think about supporting charities or mutual aid societies that provide critical direct services, such as serving food to people experiencing homelessness, mentoring youth, or working with refugees.

But what about the organizations, groups, and individuals that enable these social sector entities to thrive and make a difference in their communities?

We call this support system the social sector infrastructure. Often overlooked or even invisible to some, the infrastructure is an ecosystem of providers that offers services focused on sustainability, learning, relationships, and influence to social sector organizations. These services help social sector entities form, operate, grow, develop, connect, engage, and influence our society.

Our team of researchers from the Urban Institute and George Mason University developed a definition of social sector infrastructure, because without a clear understanding of what it is and who it serves, the infrastructure might not be properly valued, appreciated, utilized, and resourced.

What is the social sector infrastructure?

We started with the questions: What is the social sector infrastructure, how do you describe it, and why does it matter?

Our research grappled with some of the same definitional issues taken up in the federal policy debate on infrastructure legislation about how to define national infrastructure, with some politicians arguing for a narrow definition focusing on roads and bridges and others wanting to include social infrastructure, such as child care and affordable housing.

We ultimately embraced a broad definition that includes commonly considered supports—such as technology, formal education programs, membership associations, and advocacy—alongside services that target the well-being of people whose labor, commitment, and passion fuel the social sector, such as living wages and strong benefits. We developed the definition through focus groups, a literature review, advisor consultations, and the diverse experiences of our team.

We chose to go broad because definitions that exclusively center the contributions of incorporated or legally recognized institutions can overlook the contributions of unincorporated groups and individuals, which can overemphasize large and white-led institutions and devalue the many ways smaller entities and communities—including communities of color—and individuals can support one another. We included nonprofits and for-profits with a social mission; unincorporated groups of individuals united around a common social purpose, such as mutual aid societies and social movements; and individuals acting in their own capacity to achieve a social mission, such as volunteers and donors.

Wheel infographic showing the social infrastructure components, including learning, relationships, influence, sustainability,  operations, education and training, knowledge development, knowledge dissemination, convenings, networks, leadership development, communications, civic engagement, advocacy, financial resources, and mission and talent.

Source: Mobility Labs for the Urban Institute.

How to bring visibility and attention to the social sector infrastructure

For the social sector to thrive, funders need a better understanding of financial needs within it. Social sector infrastructure providers must be able to identify strategic priorities and areas for growth and partnership, and individuals, groups, and institutions within the social sector need to know what resources are available to them—and for which they may need to advocate.

Our new report, feature, and infographic can help by shaping the way we think about, talk about, and support the social sector and its infrastructure. And next month, we’ll be hosting an event to explore the state of the social sector infrastructure and what it needs for the future.

We consider this definition a starting point for a social sector–wide conversation and encourage stakeholders to explore our interactive feature and suggest examples of infrastructure activities and infrastructure providers that you think give a more complete sense of the infrastructure’s breadth, diversity, and value. Our team looks forward to reviewing submissions through February 10 and updating the feature to reflect your thoughts as we strive to help tell the story of infrastructure’s critical role in promoting a thriving social sector.


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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 Volunteering Social sector infrastructure
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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