The blog of the Urban Institute
May 6, 2019

Is Political Polarization Affecting the Nonprofit Sector?

May 6, 2019

In many ways, America’s population has grown more polarized along racial, economic, and political lines. Americans are more likely to live near others from the same socioeconomic background and those who share their political beliefs.

But we know little about how this divide has affected the nonprofit sector. Few studies have looked at the geographic distribution of nonprofit missions as a function of the demographics of communities in which they operate.

How communities shape nonprofit missions—and vice versa

Nonprofit missions reflect the values of those who create, manage, and support nonprofits in their communities. Missions also shape how communities allocate resources to target populations and interest groups, so observed differences in missions may help explain variation in social outcomes by place.

In a report I recently coauthored with Jesse D. Lecy and Francisco J. Santamarina, we attempt to identify the effects of local values on nonprofit missions.

For our analysis, we used landslide voting districts—districts whose votes went overwhelmingly to one party in the 2008 presidential election—as a proxy for political ideology. To isolate political ideology from its typical correlates of race, wealth, and population density, we paired districts with equivalent demographic characteristics. We then compared nonprofits in matched voting districts to identify differences in activities, mission, and funding.

Our analysis revealed three differences and similarities in nonprofit missions:

Nonprofits in liberal communities were more likely to focus on vulnerable populations

We can’t make conclusive inferences from the small sample sizes in each community category, but some interesting patterns emerged. Democratic districts are more likely to support community improvement, youth development, societal benefit, and disease prevention nonprofits, whereas Republican districts are more likely to support education, arts, recreation, and housing nonprofits.

In broad terms, it looks as though nonprofits in Democratic supermajority districts tend to focus more on economic development, broad community benefit, and support for vulnerable groups, while nonprofits in Republican districts seem to focus on providing specialized services and amenities to community members. 

figure 1

Nonprofits in conservative communities were less reliant on donations

Nonprofits in Democrat supermajority districts derived 65 percent of total revenue from donations versus 27 percent for those in Republican supermajority districts. This might be driven partly by the differences in organization activities across the communities—social benefit and youth nonprofits would be more likely to rely on donations than health nonprofits, for example.

But the result is surprising given previous work that claims that conservatives are more generous with charitable contributions.

Religious and special interest nonprofits serve red and blue communities equally

Republican districts were only slightly more likely to have nonprofits with a religious mission (24 percent versus 14 percent), but this was not statistically significant. Our analysis didn’t find that either type of community is more likely to contain special interest group nonprofits serving a narrow purpose, like a professional association for surgeons.

The impact of political polarization warrants more study

As communities have become demographically sorted into political, cultural, economic, and ideological silos, we should continue to explore how these trends affect civil society.

Historically, we’ve assumed that nonprofits are beneficial to society because they offer public goods and services that are accessible to most. But in an ideologically polarized world, we need to consider how communities use tax-exempt organizations to create private goods that might only benefit certain segments of the community.

Photo by Nattapol Cheerapa/Shutterstock.

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