School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series
Most of us are probably aware that non-profit organizations are valuable. They provide important services. They bring people together. And they’re good at helping people in need.
SPEA researcher Kirsten Grønbjerg has spent the past several years studying non-profits in Indiana, and found that they may be even more important than we assume.
“To me, non-profits are an interesting way of getting an understanding of the social structure of a society,” she says. “If you understand the role that non-profits play, chances are you have a fairly good handle on what the social structure of that society looks like.”
Looking at non-profits in Indiana, Grønbjerg says, is like working in a laboratory: The state has less than 70,000 non-profits — few enough to make possible a comprehensive study. And over the past decade, Grønbjerg has done just that, compiling lists and descriptions of organizations including Little Leagues, model airplane builders, veterans groups, and health care non-profits, to name only a few. The list has allowed Grønbjerg to create in-depth reports on how the state’s non-profits are organized.
“We use it as basis for developing a broad–scale survey of all types of non-profits in Indiana to do a comprehensive set of profiles,” she says. “We had six or seven reports focusing on different aspects of the non-profit sector, which is the first comprehensive portrait of what the non-profit sector looks like in the United States when you take this broad scope approach.”
Grønbjerg’s groundbreaking study has revealed dozens of important insights. For example, Indiana residents appear to place more trust in non-profits than they do in state and local governments because, Grønbjerg says, non-profits are nominally mission–driven and not concerned with lining their own pockets.
The study also found that non-profits bolster communities by providing employment. In fact, Grønbjerg has found that the non-profit sector was the primary source of economic and job growth for Indiana during the past few years. “There are currently a minimum of a quarter million people in Indiana employed for pay in non-profits, earning close to $9 billion in total payroll,” she says. “That means that people are paying taxes, rent, food, and shopping with that money. It is not that money coming from tax exempt organizations doesn't mean it doesn't end up in the state or federal government's tax revenues. Just due to the size of this means about as many people work in food and accommodation industries, almost as many as working for local government.”
People who don’t work for non-profits or directly rely on their services may tend to take them for granted. But Grønbjerg says that people ought to be aware of the value non-profits provide.
“Non-profits are a very important part of the economy,” she says. “They are a very important part of quality of life in local communities, where much of the education, culture, arts, religious life, service systems, hospitals, museums, and homeless shelters are run by non-profits. So you ought to care about the state of those kinds of institutions.”