In my dissertation, A Political Theory of Nonprofits: Partisanship, Policy, and the Rise of the Nonprofit Sector, I consider the consequences of government failure as a function of politics on the U.S. nonprofit sector. Traditionally, nonprofit research defines government failure in terms of service quantity, quality, or inaction. I apply a definition of government failure that is driven by partisan perception, rather than realized service. For instance, Democrats are less likely to believe a Republican-led government is high-performing, regardless of actual performance. Juxtapositioning partisan politics against the nonprofit sector, I argue and find evidence that elections, political competition, and social construction affect the emergence and distribution of the nonprofit sector, including 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

Positioning nonprofits against political phenomena opens new lines of questioning: Why do partisanship and political conflict shape “apolitical,” 501(c)(3) nonprofits? How do the outcomes of political elections affect charitable donations to 510(c)(3) organizations? Why do some groups and causes have many nonprofits serving them, while others have nearly zero; in other words, why are there so many nonprofits serving children but no nonprofit operated prisons in the U.S.? And, in turn, how does the existence and landscape of the nonprofit sector change the very nature of American politics? I argue that nonprofits emerge in response to political competition as forms of exit or voice, provide evidence that individuals are likely to “rage give” to nonprofits when their preferred candidate loses an election, and demonstrate that who a nonprofit serves is an important predictor of nonprofit emergence and operations.

Nonprofits are important, but to-date undertheorized, political actors within the U.S. political economy. In addition to a new, political theory of nonprofits, my dissertation provides insights that can lead to better administration: I identify the political conditions under which partisans make donations and address sources of inequity within the nonprofit sector. Ultimately, my dissertation shifts our current understanding of the function, development, and purpose of the U.S. nonprofit sector.

I presented chapters of my dissertation at the following workshops:

  • The Doctoral Fellows Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s The Center for Social Impact Strategy (Summer 2019)
  • American Political Science Association (APSA) Public Administration & Public Policy Dissertation Workshop (July 27 – August 13, 2020)
  • Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) Dissertation Fellowship Workshop (November 10-11, 2020)