Woody Powell is a sociologist and faculty co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he heads the Civic Life of Cities Lab. Christof Brandtner is an organizational sociologist and Assistant Professor of Social Innovation at emlyon Business School, and a senior research fellow at the Civic Life of Cities Lab. Yi Zhao is Associate Director of Research for the Civic Life of Cities Lab and a recent Ph.D who was awarded the 2022 Best Dissertation Award from the Public and Nonprofit Division of the Academy of Management. Drawing on original research done in six cities—San Francisco, Seattle, Shenzhen, Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna—they recently published a special collection of papers in UC Press’s journal Global Perspectives which examines how formal civil society organizations contribute to the vitality of urban life.

UC Press: Tell us about Stanford University’s Civic Life of Cities Lab.

We are not parachute researchers who land in unfamiliar places to do research

WP/CB/YZ: The CLC Lab is a part of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. At CLC, we are a community of scholars from twelve universities around the world who study formal nonprofit organizations to understand the organizational building blocks of civil society. Our research began in 2002 with a study of nonprofit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has since expanded to include Seattle, Shenzhen, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, and Vienna. In each city, we have a research team with members who either were born in that city or have lived there for at least ten years, which means we are not parachute researchers who land in unfamiliar places to do research. This knowledge about our home cities and their local connections proved crucial in making contacts with local nonprofits and creating a sense of safety among our survey respondents and interviewees when discussing matters with us that are seldom talked about in many circumstances, especially in autocratic settings. Now our lab is home to nearly 30 researchers worldwide, including faculty, postdocs, and graduate students from a mix of disciplines, from sociology, education, public administration, management, information science and gender studies. We share a willingness to do comparative work, to critique one another’s efforts in a sympathetic way, and to learn from other team members regardless of academic background, institutional affiliation, or rank.

UC Press: In your introduction to the special collection, you note how civil societies are ultimately rooted in place. How has the global pandemic upended our traditional notions of place, and in turn, what kind of effects has this had on civil society in the cities you’ve studied?

WP/CB/YZ: The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly proved that we are now living in a global village of common fate. With this virus, the global is inside us. Similar trends are occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world, and we are more interconnected due to a global economy and the tools of digital technology. But interestingly, as we compare cases from our cities, it becomes clear to us there is a rich variation among places—even within the same country—in the responses of local civil society organizations to the pandemic, and in changes that they have made to cope with its impacts. These striking variations at the local and organizational level would escape from researchers who stop at global or national observations. For us, civil society is primarily defined by social interactions among organizations and people in their immediate environs. In Seattle, for example, a nonprofit supporting domestic violence survivors moved their fundraising events online but continued to offer emergency shelters for victims and provide services deemed most essential in person during the pandemic. In Sydney, a nonprofit-run social enterprise café collaborated with local restaurants and surf clubs to turn themselves into a food bank and community kitchen delivering individual and family care packages during the lockdown. In the San Francisco Bay area, a nonprofit that is a haven for low income, first generation, and underrepresented college students reopened to offer a safe study place for community building and solidarity among marginalized students, adapting both their space and communal rhythms to simultaneously address pressing public health needs and provide students with a physical home. As these organizations re-purpose their activities and take on new roles to fulfill unmet needs, they mobilize funds, resources, and volunteers in their local communities. To be clear, we are not arguing that studying civil society at the national or global level has little value; instead, we want to stress that the global and local are closely intertwined, and the multi-functional features of civic society organizations are best understood in the local context where global issues are manifest and addressed in distinctive fashion. For many civil society organizations that we have studied, “think globally but act locally” is a common mantra.

UC Press: Why was it important for you to take a comparative approach to your research on civil society?

WP/CB/YZ: We attempt to follow in the footsteps of the visionary German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whom we mention in the introductory essay, to illustrate the importance of a comparative approach to scientific inquiry. The samples of the similar species of plants that this remarkable explorer collected from different continents revealed not only variation but also striking resemblance, which offered a touchstone for understanding how nature is deeply interconnected. As a form of organizations, nonprofits have expanded globally. Similar to the rocks and fauna that Humboldt observed, civil society organizations exist in many places around the world, come in various forms, and serve functions that may at first appear locally specific but seen in comparative perspective are closely related to organizations in other places. Only a comparative approach allows us to discover the differences and commonalities among civil society organizations and refine our understanding of how people and practices of these organizations both shape and are shaped by local social and spatial contexts. 

UC Press: What are some highlights of the papers in the collection? What did you find in these cities? Were there surprises? Commonalities?

WP/CB/YZ: Across the six cities covered by essays in this special issue, we find robust contributions being made by nonprofit organizations to the vitality of urban life, particularly as both governments and businesses struggle to muster a comprehensive response to an unprecedented situation like Covid. In San Francisco and Seattle, where civic threads are frayed by a myriad of social problems and economic inequalities, nonprofits work to provide critical services and mend social fractures by re-building community and partnering with other nonprofits and businesses. Unlike their counterparts in the laissez-faire US, nonprofits in Shenzhen, Singapore, and even Sydney are monitored more closely by governments and must navigate through their complex relationships with the state. For nonprofits in these cities, technological tools, especially social media and crowdfunding, often create new ways to improve their financial sustainability and connect to target beneficiaries in their local communities. In Vienna, the current work of integrating natives and migrants is shaped by the historically shifting power relations among socioeconomic classes. 

Taken together, the articles formulate a place-based, organizational approach of comparing the ways in which nonprofit organizations operate and serve in different political, economic, and social settings. Relative to classic theories couched at the sector or national level, we examine civil society and its organizations at the meso-level that underscores the relationships that organizations must maintain with other actors in their immediate environments. Our analysis at this meso-level reveals several findings that seem unexpected from the lens of existing theories. Consider the Bay Area for an example. Even with conforming pressures—especially from funders—on nonprofits to be professional and adopt more business-like practices, there is still a considerable heterogeneity and diversity in the approaches that local nonprofits take to accomplish their missions. In the global high-tech hubs of Seattle, San Francisco and Shenzhen, the abundant tools of information technology and digital communications have not lessened local organizations’ commitment to the places where they work. These are certainly compelling surprises! The fact that nonprofits are staying close to their communities while doing their work deserves to be better recognized and understood. 

UC Press: What’s next for the Civic Lives of Cities Lab?

WP/CB/YZ: It has been a very rewarding journey for our lab to put together this special issue because it has generated so many ideas for future research that we would like to add to our existing research agenda. For instance, a common theme across our articles from each city in this special issue is the engagement of nonprofits in re-building and creating community. But community building takes on different looks as we compare nonprofits in the SF Bay Area where organizations are often led by well-educated professionals, and in Vienna where membership organizations are the major force tackling the challenge of integrating German-speaking residents and non-German-speaking migrants. A group of us have started to explore the similarities and differences in the approaches by which these organizations embed themselves into their local communities. The findings from this line of inquiry will have important theoretical and practical implications for how we understand the contributions of nonprofits to the health of civil society around the world. 

UC Press: Thank you so much for sharing your research on the civic lives of cities—we look forward to what’s in store!

WP/CB/YZ: Our pleasure! Thank you for inviting us to the Q&A and giving us an opportunity to share our thoughts behind this special issue. To our dear readers, please visit our website at https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/research/civic-life-of-cities-lab/ to learn more about our work.

Global Perspectives is an online-only, peer-reviewed, transdisciplinary journal seeking to advance social science research and debates in a globalizing world, specifically in terms of concepts, theories, methodologies, and evidence bases. Work published in the journal is enriched by invited perspectives that enhance its global and interdisciplinary implications.

Editor-in-Chief: Helmut K. Anheier, Hertie School and Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA
Twitter: @GlobalPerspJnl