Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3

Toward a Stronger Patchwork

by Nick Riddle


When Kirsten Grønbjerg first came to the United States in the 1960s, she saw a motley mix of agencies and organizations providing social services without the central direction from the state she had grown up knowing in Denmark. In twenty years of research, she has examined that peculiarly American mix and come to understand the many ways it is stitched together.

Grønbjerg, a professor of public and environmental affairs and philanthropic studies and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, specializes in the network of nonprofit agencies that underpins much of the U.S. human service system through complex relationships with government, the private sector, and each other. Many of these organizations—particularly those belonging to well-known organizations such as United Way—are highly visible in local communities, but countless others also play critical roles. The nature of state and private support for these groups is changing, and that affects the community in ways that needs to be studied. “These are important institutions,” Grønbjerg says, “but they don’t strike me as very coherent. Rather, they form an uneven patchwork, with little or no coordination.”

A series of studies over more than twenty years enabled her to produce a clearer picture of this patchwork. Grønbjerg believes its roots go back to the eighteenth century. “Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776,” she points out. “The United States incorporated that market ideology with its concept of free competition and limited government into its Constitution, and it survived in part because of immense resources of the Western frontier and in part because it matched so well the heterogeneity of the nation.” The legacy of that influence is evident in many ways, Grønbjerg says: The problems encountered by labor movements, the distrust of any form of socialism, and the ambiguity in relations between the individual and the state. “While the state has a role to play in ensuring equality of opportunity,” she says, “Americans tend to believe it should avoid interference with outcomes so that what happens to you should directly reflect your own initiative—or lack thereof, as the case may be.”

Grønbjerg’s perspective has European origins. Born in Denmark, she came to the United States for a year of study, became fascinated with the U.S. welfare system, and stayed on. “There was such a contrast between what I knew in Scandinavia and what the United States was like in the Sixties, with heated debates about the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs.” She became interested in the ways services delivered by European welfare states “were not carried out here by the state, but by nonprofit organizations delivering these services under contract with the state.”

Grønbjerg was an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago when she published an article, “Private Welfare in the Welfare State: Recent U.S. Patterns,” in the Social Service Review in 1981. It was a timely piece. “It came out at the exact time the Urban Institute was looking for researchers to participate in a large national project to assess the impact of the Reagan budget cuts on nonprofit organizations.” Grønbjerg was recruited to serve as the Chicago field associate for the project. Her writings since then have been prolific, with three books, thirty articles, and numerous conference papers.

Studying the full range of nonprofit organizations is no easy task. Researchers tend, Grønbjerg says, to concentrate on the most visible nonprofit organizations— universities, hospitals, major cultural institutions, and United Way agencies. Her article “Mapping Small Religious Nonprofit Organizations: An Illinois Profile” was part of an attempt to remedy this. Smaller organizations are easily overlooked when they don’t have imposing buildings or media campaigns behind them. Even government statistics pay very little attention to nonprofit organizations. Many (for example churches) are not required to register or report on their finances, Grønbjerg explains. And the U.S. system of national accounts puts nonprofit organizations in the same category as private households, making it nearly impossible to track their contributions to the national economy.

Working at an institution such as Indiana University has distinct advantages for her research. It’s partly a question of climate; a more critical approach is encouraged, if not insisted upon, by the academy, and “one is allowed to do research that takes you where the findings lead you,” Grønbjerg says. “Because of the scope and focus of SPEA, it is also much easier to locate other people who have complementary knowledge and expertise,” she adds. “That can be difficult if you are the only one at your institution working in an area.”

This table shows the sources of revenue for the independent sector in the United States—the estimated one million organizations registered under sections 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code (charitable and advocacy organizations), plus religious entities. Revenue sources vary from private donations by individuals to sales and government contract payments. This chart shows revenue for health services, education/research, social/legal serices, civic/social/fraternal, arts/culture, and religious entities. Profiles do vary among organizations active in the same field.

At SPEA, her research can also be made directly available to students, who will become the next generation of nonprofit professionals. In her course The Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Grønbjerg gives her students a hands-on experience by asking them to do case studies of nonprofit organizations or to compare the sector incommunities of their own choice.

“Our students find jobs easily,” she says. “They’re in demand by nonprofit organizations, but also by public agencies, which work closely with nonprofits. Also, many corporations have community relations staff and increasingly recognize how valuable it is to have someone who understands nonprofits in that capacity.”

Grønbjerg’s findings are helping to determine the skills that future professionals in this field will need. Nonprofit organizations increasingly need people with skills in management, particularly financial management, because of the increasing complexity of funding sources and the growing tendency for nonprofits to explore commercial activities or linkages. Grønbjerg identifies volunteer management as another concern, as nonprofits have to match changes in their own needs for volunteers with shifts in the pool of available volunteers. As more working-age adults are employed outside the home and working longer hours, many nonprofits are looking to retirees, but then must structure volunteer opportunities to accommodate the capacities and interests of older volunteers.

Most of all, Grønbjerg is concerned with making the patchwork stronger. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult to work for a nonprofit organization in any kind of leadership position unless one has a strong interest in building relationships with other organizations,” she says. “Understanding and strengthening integration and linkages is really going to be the key.”