1. Mapping the Unequal Playing Field: The Disparities and Geography of Philanthropy
The first pillar of my research developed from my dissertation represents a systematic investigation to explain the locational distribution and disparity of community philanthropy. Philanthropy is a defining feature and cornerstone of the nonprofit sector. One special type of place-based philanthropy is community foundations, a form of 501(c)3 grantmaking intermediaries, which serve as a local governing mechanism for distributing community resources to address public problems and improve community well-being. It is critical to ask: What factors drive or hamper the incidence of such philanthropic efforts in communities? In the paper “ The Geography and Disparities of Community Philanthropy” published in Voluntas (Wu, 2021), I offer a community assessment model and empirically accounts for the place-to-place difference in the locational distribution of community foundations in relation to community needs and resources, and ecological environments. I found significant disparities in where they serve and the scale of their philanthropic activities along the economic, ethnic, sociodemographic, religious, and urban-rural lines. Alarmingly, community foundations tend to be absent in vulnerable communities such as those with high poverty, ethnic diversity, and the proportion of ethnic minorities.
These findings propelled my continuing investigation into the “Place Dilemma of Community Philanthropy,” which describes the situation that community foundations are not only place-based but also potentially place-bounded and powered by inequality. Their philanthropic capacity—the ability to raise funds from and distribute them to local communities—depends on the locational assets that their communities inherit in the first place and the degree of inequality within the communities. This working paper won the ARNOVA Best Conference Paper Award in 2018.
Extending on the place dilemma paper, my team (with Chao Guo and Ji Ma) is finishing up an externally funded research project that analyzes philanthropic gaps across American communities, particularly the extent to which local nonprofit sectors serving disadvantaged, minority and rural communities might “lock in” the path of “philanthropic desert” over time. Our findings illuminate the “Matthew Effect in American Generosity”—a self-reinforcing process reproducing disparities across space and time. We have developed multiple national panel datasets of local nonprofit sectors from 2000 to 2020 and found evidence for consistently lower philanthropy capacity in poor, minority, and rural communities over time. Additionally, government funding moderates the relationship between community disadvantage and philanthropic capacity. The study makes a significant theoretical and empirical contribution to advancing research in the philanthropic gaps and won the RGK-ARNOVA President’s Research Award and an award from the Generosity Commission.
2. Explicating the Institutional Logics of Community Leadership and Donor Services
Besides analyzing the interaction between place and philanthropy, my research delves deeply into the “so-what” questions to ascertain the broader policy influence of foundations. Specifically, the second stream of my work examines how foundations extend their impact beyond their role as mere patrons by undertaking a community leadership role. Within this context, I also examined the underlying power dynamics and strategic considerations that shape these endeavors. While community foundations are increasingly recognized as local leaders to catalyze change in local communities, the concept of community leadership has not been clearly or consistently defined and operationalized in the literature, presenting fragmented understandings that bring confusion. My work “ Community Leadership as Multidimensional Capacities,” published in Nonprofit Management and Leadership (Wu, 2021), fills this theoretical void by conceptualizing and operationalizing community leadership capacity based on a large population sample of U.S.-based community foundations (Wu, 2021). This article won the Editors’ Prize for Best Scholarly Paper in Nonprofit Management and Leadership in 2023.
Continuing this line of research, I draw on the institutional logics perspective to examine the interplay between “Community Leadership and Donor-Advised Funds” in the context of community foundations. Triangulating and combining the qualitative text data from annual reports and the quantitative administrative data from 482 community foundations, I found that a foundation with a strong donor logic tends to have more diverse leadership practices. This article expands the conceptualization of institutional logics by considering organizational agency and its pursuit of leadership in the communities. This research also probes the institutional landscape and power dynamics among stakeholders in philanthropic relationships.
3. Tracing Nonprofit Advocacy and Discursive Influence on Social Media
Moving on to the online playing field, the third stream of my research examines various mechanisms of public engagement and advocacy to impact public policy. Earlier scholarship on foundation strategy has explored the unequal power that donors exercise or the so-called donor control, yet less attention has been given to the dyadic ties with the public. Public engagement is critical for foundations to democratize control, placing greater power and voice with community stakeholders they intend to benefit. In my article, “ Beyond Policy Patrons,” published in Public Management Review (Wu, 2023), I conceptualized how foundations engage the public in policy change and advocacy on Twitter through four mechanisms—Mobilization, Advocacy, Dialogue, and Education (‘MADE’). I analyzed stakeholders and message contents of more than 16,000 tweets collected from 299 Twitter accounts of U.S. community foundations during two 12-month periods. In a related paper, “ Exploring Donor Influence and Public Engagement,” published with Voluntas, I investigated how strong donor influence might affect the thematic patterns of public engagement messages on Twitter using structural topic modeling, an unsupervised machine learning technique.
In another line of work, “ Who Leads and Who Echoes?” (Wu & Xu, 2023) recently published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, my collaborator and I traced the message diffusion networks of climate action and contrarian nonprofits on Twitter (now “X”). Social media offer a very noisy information environment, and it is difficult to ascertain who leads a climate discourse and how the messages might diffuse across stakeholders. Adjudicating the question of message diffusion on Twitter is theoretically crucial for expanding the nonprofit advocacy literature. It is empirically intriguing, requiring a mixed methods approach that combines computational text analysis, network analysis, and stakeholder analysis to address the research problem. Notable findings come from this approach. Our analyses showed that while anti-groups might not be frequent tweeters, their voices seem highly reciprocal and diffused on Twitter. Relatively high semantic similarities between messages originating from climate contrarian nonprofits and bot-like accounts are uncovered. This paper demonstrates methodological innovation and generates exciting theoretical insights into the roles of nonprofit conversation leaders in climate discourse.
In the next five years, I have ongoing works that investigate (1) the theoretical inquiry into distributive justice and participatory grantmaking process, (2) a cross-country comparative study on community leadership, and (3) global mapping of climate philanthropy networks. Please connect with me if you are interested in my work and want to discuss any topics!