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Grantmaking as Governance

How the U.S. government funded the growth of the nonprofit sector

There is little doubt that one of the most significant developments of the U.S. nonprofit sector was its expansion in the 1960s, as it absorbed federal funding to implement Great Society social welfare and anti-poverty programs. Yet, even as that expansion remains an indisputable landmark, its significance with respect to broader political and ideological currents is much less settled.

Should it be interpreted as a step toward the growth of the welfare state or a march toward the privatization of public goods? Was it a progressive victory or an anticipation of neoliberalism’s triumph?

These questions drive Claire Dunning’s new book, Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State, which chronicles the partnerships that developed between community-based nonprofits in Boston and city, state, and federal authorities over the last half century. For Dunning, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, the ability of these partnerships to hold different value for different sectors was a major reason for their initial spread. For some players, they represented the prospect of an urban government responsive to community needs, while for others they signaled the power of private action and the market to remedy social ills. Ultimately, Dunning argues, this latter vision prevailed. By the final decades of the 20th century, the popularity of these partnerships stemmed from their ability to promote the interests of the corporate, financial and political elite who profited from the inequality these partnerships purported to address.

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