Methods: Based on two years of fieldwork on the New Communities Program in Chicago—including 120 interviews, field observation, and documentary analysis in 16 neighborhoods (with a more intensive focus on six in-depth case study sites)—this paper examines the extent to which neighborhood nonprofits contribute to local governance. In doing so, it focuses on three principal functions—deliberation, representation, and resource allocation—that are central to governance. To what extent do neighborhood nonprofits perform these functions, and to what effect? To what extent do these functions become incorporated into government decision-making and policy implementation? What are the costs, benefits, and tensions inherent in these processes and relations?
Results: We find that many community organizations engage in governing processes in both direct and indirect ways, and in some cases contribute to significant neighborhood influence on policy outcomes. However, opportunities to wield such influence often take place at the intersticesof public and private action, often in response to “gaps” in state policy or infrastructure. Opportunities to engage more directly in governance arise and recede and may move along a continuum between more and less direct engagement in governance processes as these interstitial spaces open or contract. Finally, even when such space opens to grant nonprofits direct influence in urban governance, conflict sometimes occurs among community organizations, and between them and the state, around the boundaries of control in ways that may constrain action on the part of neighborhood groups or, in some cases, create new opportunities to direct resources to low-income neighborhoods.
Implications: To the extent that neighborhood organizations can successfully open up this interstitial space, they can begin to inform and leverage governmental action and play more direct roles in governance. Local organizations with strong connections to political actors and those linked to well-connected allies (such as broader CBO networks and influential intermediaries) are in stronger positions to shape opportunities for influence.