|posted by |
Robert F. Ashcraft, Ph.D.
ASU Lodestar Center
In a prior post titled, "Really, How Many Nonprofits Are There?" my colleague Professor Mark Hager dissected the conundrum faced by nonprofit researchers in answering that question. To a casual observer, it seems so easy to answer, and yet, as Mark explained, it is quite complex. As researchers attempt to explain this and other questions, they are sometimes charged with the claim, "Oh, you people are just too academic!" I always find that exclamation amusing, since truth-seeking is about understanding complex phenomena and overcoming huge methodological challenges—explanations of which are not always welcomed in a world that places a premium on superficial sound bites and speedy, surface-level interpretation.
Determining the number of nonprofits is even more challenging when considering the question, "Where do nonprofits operate?" Often, funders and others ask this because they want to know to what extent various nonprofits serve a particular geographic location (e.g., city, county, etc.). While there may be value in knowing where building-centered nonprofits (e.g., museums, recreation centers, etc.) exist, the analysis falls apart when considering nonprofits that provide services instead (often to our most vulnerable citizens). For example, a study done several years ago in Los Angeles suggested that South Central Los Angeles is devoid of much-needed services provided by nonprofits (such as domestic violence shelters) because census track data did not reveal any located in the area. Using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, the report depicted a rather bleak picture of "nonprofitness" in the area as compared to other regions.