Sponsored Social Change in a Public Housing Project
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- Cobb, P.D., Shefner, J. & Rubin, B.A. Qual Sociol (2006) 29: 211. doi:10.1007/s11133-006-9019-8
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Federal and local pressures have given rise to a hybrid organization that brings together disparate groups from the public and non-profit sectors to address complex social problems. This article examines one such organizational emergence of state-affiliated sponsorship. Based on data from a multi-method case study, we find that not only do members of the sponsoring organization use legitimate authority structures, existing laws, and social norms to reproduce their power, they do so with a state mandate that privileges their expertise and processes.
What kind of partnership is this? It is an unequal partnership because it is between Abernathy and Trachsell with no representative of the community. We need honesty. Who gets the money? Who gets salaries, programs, and Resident Council funds? We need to be more deliberate. (UCP participant at a meeting with the National Advisory Board)
Collaboration may ideally entail cooperation, open communication, and equality, but some collaborative efforts fail to realize this potential. Partnerships are not always ideally collaborative or equal in their inception or enactment. In fact, many partnerships fail to realize this potential (Huxham, 1996; Gray, 1989; Lawrence, Hardy, & Phillips, 2002). The comment above reflects the problems that actors face in a partnership organization, one that is supposed to create and sustain equal and collaborative relations between parties, but where the state views one party in the partnership as more worthy.
Existing analyses often overlook the impediments posed by state affiliation and systematic status inequalities that frame relations and agenda setting processes in such organizations. This case study sets the stage for understanding how structural inequalities embedded in the partnership may persist in sponsored relations and undermine effective collaboration—even when participants and leaders express ideological commitment to equality. We address several sites of struggle that threatened the partnership, and examine how the sponsor’s strategies relied on socially legitimated authority and structures. We focus on how use of these strategies perpetuated existing status differences and created a situation in which some partners felt disenfranchised and distrustful. We also analyze how these strategies facilitated the sponsor’s alignment with the state and yielded greater organizational power and resources to the sponsor (see Hardy & Phillips, 1998). Although race is not the central focus of this analysis, importantly, these struggles are situated in a context of racial difference and class inequality.
We argue that university-community partnerships provide an appropriate venue to return to the important organizational questions of who has organizational power and what are the outcomes of hierarchy and privilege (Hinings & Greenwood, 2002). We provide an examination of what happens when there is diminished state support for the provision of necessary services, and partners with differential power come together to execute the state’s mission. One of our central aims is to elaborate existing theoretical understandings of sponsored social relations, and university-community partnerships provide an ideal case to examine this relationship. Although there has been increasing attention to collaborative interorganizational relationships, much of the literature on interorganizational relations is quantitatively driven missing analyses of processes of partnering (Hardy, Phillips, & Lawrence, 2003). On the other hand, many of the qualitative case studies of university-community partnerships lack empirical rigor, depth, and a critical perspective (Rubin, 2000). What follows is a discussion of the federal government’s devolution of social welfare responsibilities, emergence of these hybrids, and an analysis of the literature on sponsored social relations. We then turn to a discussion of our methods and findings from our case.
Welfare devolution and emergent organizational forms
The expanse of the federal government’s devolution may be understood in terms of the growth of “the independent sector” because the state has increasingly turned to this sector for assistance (Zylan & Soule, 2000; Brodkin, Fuqua, & Thoren, 2002; Salamon, 1995, 2002). Based on estimates from the Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for nonprofit organizations, there are approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. These organizations represent a wide array of groups and fit 27 categories of Internal Revenue Code (http://www.independentsector.org). The number of nonprofits alone increased from a 1967 level of 309,000 to over one million in 1997, and this sector possessed a budget of more than $500 billion and employed in excess of 15 million people in full and part-time positions (Katz, 2001). Furthermore, between 1977 and 1997 the number of 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations increased by 115% (Salamon, 2002). Thus, what has emerged is a new “third party government” whereby non-profit organizations and new hybrids have increasingly relied on funding from the federal government, but have also taken on the charge of finding “private solutions to public problems” (Salamon, 1995, p. 3).
States, local governments, non-profits and other entities accepted responsibilities for social welfare provision, yet they often did so with declining resources and often through innovative organizational means (Himmelman, 1992; Huxham, 1996). The social problems they confront are often complex, nearly insoluble and warrant organizational collaboration (Himmelman, 1992; Cox, 2000). Whether corporate, government, or nonprofit sectors, organizations are working together to address community needs, pursue their perceived civic responsibilities, and foment social change (Gardner, 2005).
Federal and local pressures have driven the creation of organizational hybrids, bringing together different groups in an attempt to address social problems of enormous complexity—the partnerships may bring together businesses, government agencies or non-profit organizations (Himmelman, 1992; Gray, 1989; Trist, 1993). These hybrid organizations, such as faith-based collaboratives and university-community partnerships, have taken on duties traditionally discharged by the state; and they are particularly notable in the areas such as social service provision, housing, and job training (Maurrasse, 2001; Chaves, Stephens, & Galaskiewicz, 2004).
In the 1990s universities faced increasing pressures from within and outside of higher education for universities and colleges to become more responsive to the problems of their local communities and take on responsibilities for ameliorating the complex problems facing their communities (Sandmann & Baker-Clark, 1997; Bok, 1992; Boyer, 1994). Unlike corporations and businesses, universities are not as mobile and able to escape the pressing concerns of urban America by relocating (Bensen & Harkavy, 2000). One response to the challenges of urban poverty has been the emergence of a hybrid structure in which universities attempt to work with existing community actors to address some aspect of extant social problems (Edwards & Marullo, 1999).
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken the lead for the federal government in forging university-community partnerships. A 1999 publication from Office of University Partnerships (OUP) identified 342 institutions of higher education providing 599 programs for consideration in their current practices edition (http://www.oup.org/pubs/currentp_3/intro.html). These partnerships are increasingly normative for universities and demonstrate HUD’s commitment in facilitating connections between universities and their local communities so that university experts and resources might assist with complex social problems including joblessness, homelessness, crime, and poverty (Cisneros, 1995).
These organizations and similar hybrids, possessing a wide variety of interests, are now attempting to fulfill what were previously state goals, and increasingly relying on the state for their economic survival (Cobb & Rubin, 2006; Cox, 2000). Partnerships of this type are characterized by norms of inclusiveness and democracy yet these goals are far from easy (Nyden et al., 1997; McKnight, 1995). In spite of their increasing prevalence, creating sustainable partnerships remains difficult as university experts navigate the state’s expectations and community’s expressed needs (Shefner & Cobb, 2002).
Structural hybrids, collaboration, and partnership in an era of welfare reform
Certainly, the underlying logic of partnership, whether in the private, public, or independent sectors, is to increase organizational competitiveness or capabilities through strategic relationships that allow resource sharing and capacity building (Powell, Koput, & Smith-Doerr, 1996; Gray, 1989). The unequal status of partners may benefit groups with lesser power by bringing critical resources and expertise to bear on the problems they face. Alternatively, the partnership may benefit one group considerably more and lead to an imbalance, such that one organization reaps greater financial rewards and implements strategies and structures that perpetuate existing inequalities.
Ideal characteristics of sustainable partnerships include “joint exploration of separate and common goals and interests,” “creation of a mutually rewarding shared agenda,” “shared control of partnership directions, and/or resources,” and “attention to communications and open cultivation of trust” (Holland, 2001). Effective collaboration requires “cooperative, interorganizational action that produces innovative, synergistic solutions and balances divergent stakeholders concerns” (Hardy, Lawrence, & Grant, 2005, p. 58). Thus, collaboration is in part a discursive process in which participants develop a shared identity (Hardy, Lawrence, & Grant, 2005). Achieving these ideals is tremendously difficult as participants must try to balance stakeholder concerns in an environment of inequality and contradictory interests (Cox, 2000; Cobb & Rubin, 2006).
What complicates matters in university-community partnerships is that resource-poor organizations must partner with organizations with greater resources or access to resources, and usually work with organizations with greater legitimacy and higher status. Each partner also likely brings different and, perhaps contradictory, interests to the partnership as well. Such relationships are characterized by sponsorship—an organizational relationship full of promise and peril.
Sponsorship and inequality
Previous research defines sponsorship as “a relationship in which one organization initiates or significantly strengthens another by supplying concrete aid to the latter organization. This aid includes professional organizers, money and other material resources” (Shefner, 1999). Sponsorship is fundamentally a relationship between a more powerful organization and a beneficiary organization.
Sponsors … may be an outside group, an agency that reaches into a community to organize residents in support of the agency’s program … Or it may be an organization that enters a community with the offer of staff help, technical assistance, and funds to encourage indigenous development (Brager, Specht, & Torczyner, 1987).
Sponsors collaborate to foment social change, act in conjunction with less powerful social actors, and maintain ties with the state. Although the state increasingly relies on these “third party governance” strategies, the state retains managerial oversight but bequeaths considerable discretion to the sponsor (Salamon, 1995).
The sponsoring organization must have greater legitimacy in order to broker relationships with funding entities and others with resources, including the state (Chaskin et al., 2001). Legitimacy in this context builds from Weberian logic that suggests that some groups have socially accepted or defined rights and statuses that facilitate their efforts to control, manage, or direct the organization (Weber, 1964). Likewise, legitimacy refers to an organization’s ‘nested power,’ its ability to access and leverage other resources, and its authority derived from laws, tradition, and cultural norms (Stinchcombe, 1965; Suchman, 1995; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).
Additionally, participants must perceive organizational practices as legitimate or the partnership will not flourish (Maguire, Hardy, & Lawrence, 2004). For example, universities and university faculty/administrators have greater social legitimacy as organizations and experts than do members of impoverished communities. University participation in community problem-solving then may enable change and solutions that might otherwise not have occurred. The more powerful organization can facilitate change on behalf of or in concert with the beneficiary organization, but its sustainability may depend on how closely it allies itself to legitimate structures and the state (Maguire et al., 2004)—practices that may lead to the dissolution of trust and increased inequality. Alternatively, the organization with greater power can serve as a bridge to other resources and bring to bear its expertise to the benefit of the sponsored.
When sponsorship is moderated not just by unequal resource distributions but also by long standing status differences in which one party’s status is characterized by systematic devaluation, such as inequalities of race and gender or exploitation due to class inequality, then the old, socially negative, relationships collide with the new, supposedly positive, helping roles. These systematic inequalities and participants’ subjective perceptions of them complicate or distort the sponsorship relationship. Moreover, even in relatively positive circumstances, these differences in legitimacy and social status breed distrust and threaten the appearance of partnership and equality (Cobb & Rubin, 2006; Cox, 2000). When groups wield greater power or legitimacy, the basic tenets of collaboration are at risk because even the appearance of inequality may undermine communication, trust, and cooperation (Huxham, 1996).
In sponsorship and collaborative organizations, partners bring inherently disparate interests that sometimes cohere but often contradict one another (Huxham, 1996; Cox, 2000). Yet divergence in interests between and within organizations, even ideally collaborative organizations, is normative (Selznick, 1966; Huxham, 1996; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978; Rothschild & Whitt, 1986). This divergence is made problematic when the sponsor holds greater power to overcome differences in interests and contradictory agendas. With greater legitimacy and power, the sponsor can supplant the beneficiary’s mission with its own interests. They assert their will, execute processes to their benefit, and exacerbate inequality in the collaborative relationship.
If less powerful or lower status participants feel disconnected from the organization’s goals or processes, their perceptions may significantly undermine collaboration and partnerships that are often crucial to the effective functioning of the organization (Huxham, 1996). These complex organizational relationships make it difficult for managers to satisfy the interests of multiple constituencies in the best of circumstances because each group necessarily brings its own interests and agendas that may cohere but are likely to differ in significant ways (Cox, 2000; Shefner, 1999). These differences in interests may be amplified by differences in race, gender, education, and social class.
In our case, these entrenched inequalities further complicated the management tasks that were already far from simple. While conflicts over direction and interests have received considerable attention historically, research on the connections between interests and privilege have waned in the past two decades (Hinings & Greenwood, 2002). Nevertheless, struggles over resources, interests, and power are salient in these hybrid forms—particularly, those that develop from logics of participation, collaboration, and partnership. We turn more directly to this issue in the next section.
Power and privilege in partnerships
In spite of the increase in the number and role for non-profits as well as the emergence of new hybrids, sociologists know little about how new organizational forms in the public and independent sectors negotiate interests. Hybrid organizations have emerged in these sectors that policy makers and organizers intend to promote civic engagement and enhance democracy. Nevertheless, sociologists have not fully explained either the complexities of power and privilege in this realm nor how social-structural barriers impede participation (see Hardy & Phillips, 1998; Hardy, Phillips, & Lawrence, 2003 for examples of exceptions to this pattern).
In a partnership, both the overt and subtle methods by which groups exercise their power become important (Rothschild & Whitt, 1986). We recognize power in a partnership through various methods; we focus on agenda-setting processes and consider to what extent one group determines direction without their partners’ full participation. Certainly, power derived from resources and symbolic exclusions are equally relevant (Phillips, 1997; Lukes, 1974). In this paper we understand power as relationships among individuals, that occur within an organizational setting, but remain situated in a larger societal context (Hardy, 1994; Phillips, 1997). Thus, we consider who frames the conversations and how they define the scope of collective decision-making (Lukes, 1974; Mills, 1956; Bachrach & Baratz, 1962). When one group in an ostensible partnership consistently over-rides the interests of another group, then power inequities become problematic in sponsoring relationships. Because of the normative bases of equality and inclusion in partnerships, we anticipate more subtle and nuanced exercises of power in these partnerships. Arguably, such clear and blatant examples of domination may be rare, as participants will seek to avoid overt violations of the organizational values. We do not exclude the possibility of such exercises of power. The manifestations of power and privilege are central to understanding the nature of the partnership.
Data and methods
Our entry into the field began with a seemingly simple inductive question: What is the organization of this university-community partnership? Like the participant’s question, “what kind of partnership is this?,” the answers were complex and sometimes contradictory. We relied on a multi-method case study approach to address this question. In so doing, we examined the sponsor’s relationship with the state and beneficiary by observing and uncovering formal and informal processes and relations characteristic of this organization.
A case study is an appropriate research tool with which to widen theoretical discussion—the central aim of this research (Yin, 1994). Case study methods are also particularly well suited for garnering organizational actors’ interpretive understandings and elaborating theoretical propositions (Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg, 1991). This case study relies on close to two years of ethnographic study performed by a team of three field researchers and one team coordinator. Data gathering began in September 1998, and halted in May 2000. Over the course of the study, researchers conducted nearly 200 field observations and more than 50 interviews. These observations were conducted at organizational meetings, at the housing project itself, and at the organizational office at the housing project. The team conducted semi-structured interviews of residents, on-site workers, faculty, consultants, and administrators. Respondents included leaders of the umbrella organization, the Director/Executive Monitor and an Associate Director, past and current directors of UCP, faculty, representatives of both universities, field workers, residents who also worked for UCP, and community leaders. The interviews focused on participants’ perceptions of power, understandings of the organizational structure, clarity of their roles, the organizational hierarchy, mission and definitions of organizational success. In addition, we drew on analyses of official documents such as reports to HUD and planning memos. Although the team collected data through other methods, these findings rely on observational data and analysis of archival documents. The ethnography team relied on emergent codes and themes. Thus, the research project was shaped largely by observations in the field. The team periodically coded data jointly for validity checks and to promote greater reliability, and shared data widely.
We were able to document the program over its middle years, initiating the study during Year 2 and leaving the field before the beginning of Year 5. Many respondents provided retrospective accounts of the partnership’s inception and development. Nevertheless, our data suggest that in spite of changes in leadership in Year 3 and subsequent restructuring attempts, the old structure, problems and relationships persisted throughout the university-community partnerships existence.
Our research concerns an instance of sponsorship in a university-community partnership, the Abernathy-Trachsell University-Community Partnership (UCP). UCP is an exemplar of the new “privatization of public responsibilities” (Eisenstein, 1998), and its history offers some specific findings that prove useful to explore the ways in which participants from unequal social positions negotiated interests. UCP emerged in a volatile political and social environment characterized by urban blight and a crisis in the city’s public housing. UCP was born out of negotiations between high ranking federal officials with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administrators from Abernathy University. The local housing authority was on the brink of receivership after HUD issued repetitive failing grades. The crises facing the city public officials and the housing authority had ramifications for others in the community, including Abernathy administrators.
Following a national call for universities to be more responsive to their communities and reacting to local conditions, Abernathy administrators recognized a need to become more engaged in their local community. They also recognized an opportunity to initiate an urban agenda within the university (i.e. a national center for the study of urban social problems and an urban studies curriculum). Through a bit of good luck and exceptional timing, HUD officials invited Abernathy administrators to take over the ‘disaster of public housing.’ This relationship was by all accounts unconventional for both parties. The agreement stipulated that in exchange for Abernathy’s intervention into the public housing debacle in the city, HUD officials would ‘jumpstart Abernathy’s urban agenda’ (Former Director of UCP). This solution was politically expedient for university officials and HUD, as well as for city government and the housing authority officials. According to an administrator with the Abernathy-Trachsell umbrella organization (i.e., the integrated administrative center for this partnership and similar initiatives), this “quid pro quo” arrangement meant that the housing authority would not be placed in federal receivership, which would prove embarrassing for the city’s mayor. Instead Abernathy University would assume the role of Executive Monitor for public housing in the city.
As part of this arrangement, Abernathy received two million dollars a year for five years to support resident initiatives in public housing in the city. The university would conduct research, deliver social services in a public housing community, and build the infrastructure for an urban studies program. In order to create a more fundable program, HUD recommended that Abernathy partner with nearby Trachsell University, a historically black university in the city with a substantial record of community work. The result of this funding was also the first building block in Abernathy’s infrastructure for an urban studies and research program, and the Abernathy-Trachsell umbrella organization and its flagship sub-organization, the University-Community Partnership (UCP). Importantly, Trachsell was never fully integrated into the partnership in terms of resources, decision-making, or participation but Trachsell’s role became more prominent after the first two years. Nevertheless, according to key participants, Trachsell’s involvement ebbed and flowed throughout UCP’s existence.
It was through this process, exogenous to the beneficiary, that Abernathy and UCP became the state-affiliated sponsor and, as executive monitor, a proxy for HUD policy. As part of its new role, UCP took on responsibilities previously within the domain of the state such as delivering social services in a public housing community, workforce education, employment assistance, and ancillary duties brought on by welfare reform and the impending redevelopment of the public housing community. As sponsor, Abernathy and UCP eventually initiated relations with the beneficiary organization, the Residents Council of one public housing site, and with residents of public housing.
Strategy 1: Abernathy officials privileged university planning processes and defined community problems before bringing the community into the process
The origin of sponsored relations has implications for the trajectory of the collective organization as relationships among relevant partners take shape (Shefner, 1999). On one hand, incidents of sponsorship can emerge endogenously, from the community’s interests. For example, a neighborhood organization could approach their local university officials and suggest a project with which they need assistance. The two could work together to seek federal funding to address the community-defined problem. In contrast, sponsorship may develop outside of the community. In this example, a sponsor would initiate relationships with a designated beneficiary group ex post facto. This second pattern is most similar to UCP’s development which we characterize as state-affiliated sponsorship.
Description of organizational partners
Elite private university—Primary liaison to HUD. Faculty and student body and student body are predominately white. University’s ethos is centered around research and education. Prior to this initiative the university had limited experience in community service.
Historically Black University in the local area with a history of community service and an ethos of teaching and service.
Barkley Residents’ Council
Official representative council of the Barkley public housing community. Several members were long standing members of the community. The public housing community was almost exclusively African-American.
The fact that UCP came into existence before the community provided input is undoubtedly important to understanding this case. One administrator described UCP’s on-going dilemma in trying to determine whether they were there (in the community) to help or to work with and learn from the community. The lack of integration was an issue throughout the life of UCP. This constant struggle over roles of helper or partner, according to the administrator, may have been a result of UCP developing at high levels. It is relevant to note that initial planning documents consistently refer to “Abernathy/Trachsell and HUD/Local Housing Authority Urban Initiative” with no mention of the beneficiary group at this point in the title of the initiative.
Many participants’ stories about the birth of UCP described the growth of UCP as a thing apart from the community and based on the interests and energies of faculty. Nevertheless, administrators consistently contended that Abernathy officials made room for community input in planning for specific programs by convening town hall meetings, conducting surveys, working with community gatekeepers, and pursuing other well-intended paths. Yet the struggle over how to organize was fought in ways that privileged university procedures and processes.
UCP developed through traditional and legitimate organizational mechanisms that privileged university expertise and processes. For example, administrators issued requests for proposals (RFP) to university faculty to establish programs to implement in the community. Likewise, workgroup heads for the first three years were exclusively Abernathy faculty and these areas developed according to their expertise and interests. In Year 4, the new director made efforts to more formally include Trachsell but the relationship remained tenuous throughout the life of the partnership.
The [umbrella organization for UCP] is unique because universities are the driving force. These institutions are perceived to have integrity, which was something [the housing authority] wasn’t perceived to have had. Universities also have management expertise, and human and material resources.
His comments articulated the state’s perception that the universities, particularly Abernathy, possessed organizational structures and personnel with expertise to legitimately address these concerns in socially acceptable means. Regardless of who may have shared this perception, it is clear the Executive Monitor deemed Abernathy as a model upon which to draw. This exalted view of credentials, legitimate organizational processes, and resources suggested a crude status structure within the partnership in which Abernathy was at the top, followed by Trachsell affiliates, and followed by Barkley Residents.
Moreover, participants with access to legitimate organizational processes, in this case university structures, technical resources, and academic expertise, were able to leverage resources to enact their will. It was not simply that these partners had access to funds; they also held institutional knowledge and socially legitimated expertise that facilitated their ability to enact their agendas even if at the expense of an overarching mission. Participants within the sponsoring organization leveraged resources to make their mission prominent, or at least, more likely to prevail. This ability to circumvent processes was a stark contrast to the receptiveness and quiescence of those groups that lacked the structural position to exact their will.
Strategy 2: Leaders of UCP privileged Abernathy’s mission and promoted HUD’s agenda
Each group brought interests to the partnership, some of which converged and others that competed. According to a planning memo from UCP’s original director to the Abernathy campus community, UCP’s leadership requested research and policy proposals and indicated that all submissions “must be directed to the long term goals of UCP, namely, achieving economic self-sufficiency of the residents in public housing and enhancing the capacity of Abernathy and Trachsell to carry out world class education, research, and service programs focused on distressed urban areas.” Economic self-sufficiency was certainly an over-arching and shared goal of the state, sponsor, and the beneficiary group. But this goal statement clearly articulated a set of interests focused on addressing research interests that were of little concern to the beneficiary group. Part of the reason Abernathy became involved in the arrangement with HUD was to build an infrastructure for such work and this intent remained part of administrative discourse throughout the life of the program. Likewise, one of HUD’s Office of University Partnership’s explicit purposes is to promote universities’ capacities to do this kind of work. Self-interest is likely a necessary feature of this organizational form. Without some expectation that a group will reap benefits of interest, what would motivate them to undertake the responsibilities associated with participating in such a complex form?
The focus of the grant is employability. HUD’s mission needs to be everyone’s mission but that is not in everyone’s report. If I went into mission and philosophy … What is the mission and philosophy of this program? I think I would get as many different answers as boxes [on the organizational chart]. There is a struggle over missions.
According to this evaluation, UCP’s activity as sponsor was to fulfill HUD’s interests and the technical tasks formerly under the purview of the federal government. During meetings and interviews, participants discussed creating databases, fulfilling case managers’ needs, and measuring change in residents’ access to social services—all bureaucratic responses to social service provision. Consistently missing in these discussions was the creation of a formal venue for residents to express their interests and needs. University officials’ perception of state pressures affected day-to-day operations and directions. Likewise, officials were increasingly concerned about creating more fundable programs in Years 4 and 5.
When UCP arrived I had my fears and I wondered why they were coming. Initially, I was just unsure of Abernathy’s purpose and curiosity … UCP had plenty of ideas, some for the community and some selfish … I would like to see the mission focused on issues relevant to our residents.
UCP is supposed to bring technical skills to the community. We have a five year contract with Abernathy … In three years, I don’t have proper maintenance in the development. All services have regressed. They were already regressing but now it is just turning the area into abandoned housing that is not maintained. Everything is worse—that is why I’m peeved … Trachsell and Abernathy have increased their situations more than the Residents’ Council.
For another community leader, the role of sponsor was clear: “UCP should do whatever this community needs.” The Resident Council president further described job training as residents’ most important need, particularly jobs with long-term possibilities. She perceived that UCP officials’ most important goal was building a database to assess resident participation in social service programs, an issue in which she displayed little interest. In Years 4 and 5, UCP leaders certainly paid considerable attention to creating a database because they recognized in it one of the ‘deliverables’ and ‘products’ required to help ensure future funding. Nevertheless, the immediate need felt by residents and their contrasting visions made partnering difficult. The sponsor was left in a precarious position. UCP needed to fulfill the charge of the state in order to remain competitive for future funding. Likewise, university officials entered into the partnership with their own agendas for the campus. Finally, UCP participants were often philosophically and politically committed to ameliorating the problems facing community residents. These multiple agendas fostered struggles over the mission, direction, and distribution of resources.
Competing agendas among faculty and housing residents encouraged battles over turf and presented management challenges for administrators. Although participants endorsed a core mission of economic self-sufficiency, they disagreed about how to operationalize this agenda. Ultimately, the competing interests led to considerable confusion for many participants. The following comments illustrate their confusion. One field worker commented, “There was a time of a lot of confusion, a lack of clarity about, you know, what is the true purpose of UCP, you know, what are we supposed to be doing down here.” Faculty expressed confusion about their roles and responsibilities after a change in leadership. A professor addresses the confusion directly: “It is not clear what I’m supposed to be doing now.” Another on-site participant noted, “In the past, everybody’s been operating on their own separate agenda but we still could use to brush up on our communication skills.”
These competing agendas created a difficult organizational situation and, we argue, created a situation that privileged some actors over others. The hierarchical relations and entrenched inequalities among participants meant that sponsored relations exacerbated differences in legitimacy and expert status. The sponsor pushed twin agendas favoring university and federal government interests, relying on its access to legitimate organizational processes, such as university structures, resources, and expertise. This access allowed the sponsor to leverage resources to enact its will. It was not simply that these partners had access to funds; they also held institutional knowledge and socially acceptable expertise that facilitated their ability to push their agendas even at the expense of the overarching mission. The sponsor leveraged resources to make its mission more likely to prevail compared to the interests of those groups that lacked the structural advantage to exact their will. Again, Abernathy’s ability to accomplish this advantage was due in part to their close affiliation with the state and their discretion in executing these programs.
The leaders of UCP recognized the organizational tightrope walk and thought they balanced the interests of the funding agent, the university, and the beneficiary. The following comment from the director suggests the sponsor’s perspective was that all was well: “I don’t think it [the mission] is imposed from on top … it did develop according to the energy of programs and also evolved in response to the needs of the community.” Nevertheless, administrators’ view of the community portrayed them as clients to whom they had a responsibility, reinforcing a hierarchy in which both state and sponsor superseded the beneficiary’s authority. For example, when asked to describe the organizational chart, the director said that he and his superior “answer to HUD.” In further response, the director demonstrated how UCP’s structure built on existing university relationships and hierarchies. Discussion of viable connections to the community were conspicuously absent in the discussion.
Absent full integration as leaders, participation by residents was largely limited to receiving services delivered by UCP. There were few instances in which UCP employed residents in leadership roles. Employment of some community members did not indicate full participation in the partnership’s hierarchy. A social worker commented that even when community persons were involved their suggestions did not receive equal attention because they lacked education. Residents’ low status was reinforced by their lack of access to decision-making power. University channels maintained primary responsibility for processing requests, calling meetings, distributing funding, and decision making within and regarding UCP. This decision to maintain processes within the university allowed administrators to manage the financial reporting requirements of HUD. It also posed challenges for Trachsell participants and community residents who may have felt distant from Abernathy’s organizational mechanisms, which were mysterious to those community residents unfamiliar with the academic and bureaucratic terrain. The decision-making processes may have been designed by organizational administrators’ with goals of efficiency, the outcome, however reinforced beneficiaries’ and some participants’ feelings of powerlessness.
Although some aspects of the state’s agenda converged with the beneficiary’s interests, university officials’ perceptions of the state’s agenda and role in the hierarchy overshadowed the interests of beneficiaries. The state’s interests included addressing the scandal of public housing in the city in addition to moving more welfare recipients off of welfare. UCP’s director added that the goal of the organization was to “help residents and public housing achieve some self sufficiency … What they are looking for is how they are going to generate enough … income for these new housing developments.” Even in this statement focused on the needs of residents, the ‘they’ the director referred to was the state. UCP officials’ language prioritized the state’s agenda over beneficiary’s interests and this pattern persisted over time. When queried about UCP’s agenda, the director responded that the key focus is on jobs … “not simply because that’s what HUD and the housing authority want us to do [but] because it is the more [important].”
One thing I didn’t get much done on and I am going to turn my attention to in Year 4 is working on the academic side … to see if we can customize some sort of urban studies program and institutionalize what we are doing … [The role of faculty in UCP] is not very clear. There ought to be a way and have them come down and organize a symposium for staff and for the residents to present their findings and get a dialogue going and people working in various programs might have some ideas to offer.
Differential assignation of the expert role was compounded by the ability to work with the University’s rules. Indeed, several participants pointed to bureaucratic slowness at the university as the most significant barriers to work in the community. One social worker complained about the problems social workers faced as they tried to maintain confidence and trust when “things are getting caught up at the university while waiting for approval.” Yet from officials’ perspectives, university administrative and bureaucratic accounting processes were required for accountability to HUD. Some interests prevailed and led to methods that were not always consistently valued across groups.
Strategy 3: UCP leaders focused on academic concerns and generated research that would increase their competitiveness for future government or foundation funding. Those initiatives ran counter to community desires
State expectations and sponsor’s interests sometimes put HUD and UCP officials at odds with representatives of the beneficiary. These groups expressed different goals for the organization and opinions about how best to accomplish those objectives. For example, while institutional pressures and the state’s expectations required a research component, not all participant groups shared an interest in this issue or agreed on the ways in which research tasks such as assessment and evaluation would occur. Abernathy officials spoke of HUD’s expectations that they ‘establish best practices’ and create transportable programs for other universities. They also understood that one of their responsibilities to HUD was to evaluate programs and conduct research. A memo to members of the Research and Evaluation group in which faculty participants identified one of their primary functions as “interact[ing] with the research, evaluation, and information gathering arms of federal, state and local agencies and private foundations and to develop relationships with faculty in other colleges and universities in the ‘city’ area” demonstrates how this group’s mission focused on sponsor and state needs. Additionally, this group articulated specific tasks to involve the community such as implementing a Resident’s Research and Evaluation Advisory Committee and developing specific methods for interacting and sharing information with residents. Yet committee members’ notes acknowledged that residents were “not keen on research initiatives” in the community. Community residents and some field workers expressed concern that research benefited faculty and universities more than community residents. Their concerns focused on improving housing and neighborhood conditions and increasing employability with little recognition of the possible contribution of research.
Thus, research activities, despite conforming to state mandates, sustaining funding, and positioning the organization for future monies, were not a shared priority according to community members. Residents and field workers had experienced university intervention previously. One field worker discussed how university people come in to the community, get what they need, and leave. A faculty member of the Research and Evaluation Advisory Group acknowledged that residents “are not keen on research initiatives” in the community. Research activities, although necessary to conform to state mandates, sustain funding, and position the organization for future monies, were not a shared priority according to community members.
was really resistant to all of these white people coming in and she told everybody this has happened in our community before—people have come in here and they have gotten their information and left and we’ve still had nothing. We’re still in the same situation and its not happening again. You need to prove yourselves.
Other comments reinforce the beneficiary group’s lack of interest and resistance to research efforts. Another resident who worked for the project voiced his criticism, and asked what good Abernathy’s research and urban studies agenda would do for him or the community. This resident worker repeated the Resident Council president’s criticism that there was too much research in the community from which residents did not benefit.
You know, why they wanted us to get into this, why HUD wanted us to get into this business was not to deliver social services because, God, there are so many non-profits around the city that can do this well and better than we can, but to integrate research with service delivery and kind of help them come up with best practices.
The specific means by which faculty proposed programs that target resident’s economic self-sufficiency diverged from the community’s preferred methods for moving toward the same goal. Although residents’ participation was critical to meeting the demands of the funding agency, planning and implementation relied almost exclusively on faculty experts.
Participants recognized the inherent difficulties brought on by the bureaucratic order of the university and faculty’s expert status. The issue of expert status was revealed in one professor’s comments: “the notion of the university [is that we] know what ought to go on, so we come up with some variation of the truth and lay it on people.” This comment reflects a deeply held commitment to the definition of faculty as experts.
Residents’ skepticism was diffused and did not dissipate over time. If anything, its level increased as the housing project was targeted for rebuilding. One example came in the Resident Council president’s comment that she would not be surprised if Abernathy seized the property because it was “prime real estate and since it is planned as multi-income, Abernathy students may move into the new units.”
Strategy 4: In spite of UCP administrators’ good intentions, the hierarchy of the partnership omitted a structural venue, or at least, created few outlets through which community leaders could share power and initiate change in UCP
We were always trying to find ways to maximize resident participation in activities and making … the idea of meeting with [the Barkley Residents Council president] weekly was my ideal, sort of director-to-director as a means of getting resident input into what we’re doing. We had town meetings periodically. We’d get resident input, we tried to promote resident involvement in each of the workgroups and in some of the cases with great success, and in other cases with no success at all.
So they’ve done surveys and needs assessments and we’ve talked to people and we’ve gotten a lot of information from people about what they want … So they feel like there has been a lot of resident input. There are a lot more residents coming in and getting involved than six months ago - there’s no question. But it’s still not the kind of program where residents are driving what’s happening.
I don’t see that there is too much involvement of the community as a whole. I think maybe there are key players from the community that are supposed to represent the community that are involved in program development … but those people that are identified as community leaders are not necessarily viewed [by residents] as community leaders.
This tension between a commitment to inclusive participation and a restrictive structure plagued organizational leaders. At the end of the Year 4 planning session, the director said, “I thought it was an open process … we had all of those strategic planning meetings.” He was frustrated by others’ perception that it was a closed process, but his feelings did little to change the fact that residents did not feel fully enfranchised. This tension over the nature of the partnership became part of the organizational discourse at several levels. For example, the Resident Council president said that the strategic planning meeting for Year 4 left a bad taste. The Residents’ Council had representatives at the meetings, but believed they were included only in response to complaints of exclusion. Similarly, the president of the Residents’ Council said that UCP’s director and others presented a finalized plan to HUD without another meeting including residents. Instead, UCP officials went to Washington D.C. for budget approval without the community’s agreement.
What kind of partnership is this? It is an unequal partnership because it is between Abernathy and Trachsell with no representative of the community. We need honesty. Who gets the money? Who gets salaries, programs, and Resident Council funds? We need to be more deliberate.
That is the thing with [her], why I am so responsive to her because she is my E. F. Hutton, you speak, I listen because I want her to know. They are very sensitive about Ph.D.’s coming down there. And I want to say and I am not putting her on, I do respect her … native intelligence and savvy and so on.
Second, he pointed to the need to keep money flowing into the coffers of the Resident Council. He acknowledged the frustrations associated with managing the partnership and attending to the interests of the Resident Council president. “We have a working relationship, it is always going to be healthy. She is wise enough to see the benefits of the relationships. She is also cagey enough to squeeze for the maximum benefit. I’m apparently the only one still working with her in UCP’s fourth year.” The director of UCP felt strongly that he had made serious efforts to include residents throughout the process.
Members of a national advisory board overseeing UCP, on the other hand, recognized the implications of the hierarchical organization power structure, and suggested an alternative structure for UCP to eliminate the university as the gatekeeper of funds and diffuse authority to the community. UCP did not pursue this suggestion.
We have argued that power over the agenda, participation levels, and access to resources are all indicators of organizational hierarchy. We now turn to financial inequalities in UCP. The interests of the sponsor regarding UCP’s budget conflicted with residents’ expectations. The director mentioned that it was difficult to give money directly to the community, because such expenditures reduced the amount from which Abernathy could subtract administrative cost percentages. Thus, according to officials, the organizational and accounting structure of the university was not conducive to sharing funds. Abernathy was dependent on these funds if they were to pursue work in this urban arena, and recapturing indirect costs both fed and justified their efforts. The differences in resource allocation were significant. During Year 3, $100,000 was distributed directly to the Resident Council, while Abernathy received approximately $1,736,192.
There is simply not enough information available about the financial information. We [the Resident’s Council members] have never been privy to financial records or information about what share of the total each partner receives … The ratio of profit is unknown. I’m still asking.
You are “holding the pocketbook but we can’t buy a lollipop” … “Why don’t people trust us?”
This wouldn’t be a problem now, if I had been treated in good faith. Year 4 is salvageable but we have to correct all of our mistakes and move on.
You can’t implement programs and “kiss us goodbye,” “not anymore.” I’m asking you to understand and think about the residents. Give us a fair chance in Year 4.
Contention over funding revealed how the more affluent sponsor was able to bring its expertise and legitimacy to bear in a way that maintained its privileged access to resources. Indeed, the HUD connection drove Abernathy to work in the community; neither UCP nor any other community outreach functions existed at Abernathy prior to this funding arrangement.
Closely connected to funding is the issue of sustainability. UCP participants and administrators often regarded sustainability as one marker of UCP’s success. According to the director of the Abernathy-Trachsell umbrella organization, part of the issue of sustainability is not just getting Abernathy infrastructure in place, but also having something ongoing in place for the future of public housing residents. This sentiment was reflected in his comment, “I refuse to let Abernathy be a missionary and throw a lot of money out there, get pissed, and leave.”
Abernathy officials contemplated other funding sources as they anticipated problems with sustainability. In planning documents, officials made the case that UCP had “good outside funding opportunities, held up under cost-benefit analysis, had measurable outcomes, promoted service learning, and promised to involve more faculty in UCP activities.” The director often discussed possible funding sources and set up several site visits. He told members of the organization, “You know the Annie E. Casey Foundation people are coming up with a $40 million initiative, a $40 million a year for 20 cities to do what UCP does. What we are doing now is part of the whole sustainability thing. That is what the Annie E. Casey stuff is about and the Fannie Mae. We might be able to go back to HUD as well.” Organizational leaders attempted to find ways to provide future funding sources throughout UCP’s final two years.
UCP’s dependence on federal funds is most evident following the expiration of the federal grant. Abernathy did not leave nor dissolve the program because of anger. The university maintains a presence, although the staff and resources devoted to the community are greatly reduced. UCP, however, no longer exists as it did and most of the programs tied to the HUD funding are now defunct. Yet the urban studies infrastructure at Abernathy University remains alive and well.
Our case study represents one instance of an increasingly common hybrid organization that relies on sponsored relations to carry out social service provision and other actions on behalf of the federal government. These partnerships often bring together disparate groups with varied interests, differential legitimacy, and unequal status. Although these organizations are structured on principles of cooperation and equality, this case suggests that structural inequities are exacerbated by a relationship to the state that legitimates a sponsor’s authority and power. Like other hybrids, our case brought together disparate partners (e.g. HUD, universities, and a public housing community) with an organizing ethos of high participation and equality, but replicated the hierarchy and privilege that pre-existed the relationship by relying on university processes and bureaucracies (Cobb & Rubin, in 2006). The end result was a partnership that worked to the advantage of the partner the state valued the most.
As ties between community-based organizations, universities, non-profits and local community groups grow, the barriers to full participation raise important theoretical and policy questions. Organizational documents, participants’ perspectives, the organization’s formal mission, indeed the very formation of the partnership prioritized the state’s agenda. Organizational leaders felt responsible to the state and acknowledged their responsibility to HUD directives and officials. UCP officials focused on their perceptions of the state’s agenda even if those interests meant circumventing public housing residents’ agenda. Other recent analyses have demonstrated that government funding for non-profits substantially alters and quells political activity in this sector (Chaves et al., 2004). Thus funding is clearly, and not surprisingly, important to understanding sponsorship. While this explanation of resource dependency is important and parsimonious, we argue that other institutional factors amplify the effects of the state and require further explanation.
Agenda setting processes privileged the sponsor because organizational values and the state emphasized existing and legitimate structures as a primary mechanism for developing authority structures, defining organizational direction, and developing decision-making processes. UCP relied on existing university frameworks to establish the authority relations within the partnership. Both directors of UCP rose from the faculty ranks within Abernathy University. Additionally, workgroup heads were faculty from associated disciplines. Until year four, these workgroup heads were exclusively from Abernathy. Importantly, Abernathy officials set the direction of the organization by distributing RFP’s to faculty at the partnering university. Throughout the life of the organization, UCP officials relied on pre-existing organizational processes characteristic of the sponsor rather than the beneficiary. What we did not find was a partnership that created new innovative structures such as a community advisory council or budget processes separate from university channels, which might improve access for non-university partners. Similarly, university expertise prevailed over community-based expertise - a finding reiterated by many field workers. Our findings suggest that heterogeneity and entrenched inequalities among partners amplified the effects of resource dependency and reinforced preexisting power structures at expense of an ideology of cooperation.
Heterogeneity of actors, particularly differences in race, legitimacy, social class, and expert status, reinforced hierarchies within this case of sponsorship. Traditional distinctions of power overcame efforts on the part of many committed individuals. Social barriers of race, class, legitimacy, and expertise remained in place and predictable patterns of inequality persisted. Our findings raise questions for future research in this area. For example, what organizational hierarchy would result if the state funded a university to initiate partnerships with major corporations, city governments, or other groups that might be able to access their own reserves of resources and connections? Would university expertise still be privileged among partners with secure resource bases?
What was somewhat surprising is that our evidence suggests that while the sponsor’s agenda prevailed, it is also clear that the sponsor’s agenda was not always consistent with the state’s agenda. This finding in particular offers fertile ground for future research. On the surface, it seems that the sponsor’s dependency on the state would have led to clear interest alignment. Instead, the sponsor maintained the organizational autonomy to define the direction and design the structure within which partners worked. The state’s powers of influence were more subtle. Thus, the influence of the state is relevant but those pressures are filtered through the perspectives of sponsors (Perrow, 2002). Nevertheless, the state’s agenda mattered and state mandates for reporting and evaluation affected administrative decisions. Future research might consider how sponsors are able to assert their own agenda at the expense of some of the state’s interests and the beneficiary’s concerns. Arguably, when the sponsor is closely affiliated with the state, the sponsor may be particularly prone to deviations from the state’s specific interests because of the broad and amorphous nature of the mandates (e.g. encouraging economic self-sufficiency, ameliorating social problems, etc.).
Our case study also demonstrates that beneficiary’s interests are not likely to prevail even when participants express concern for cooperation and partnership. Organizational structures, processes, and agendas suggested that the organization reflected the will of powerful interest groups. This finding was present in spite of strong personal commitments to improving the lives of the beneficiaries and promoting equality among participants. Thus, what makes these findings compelling and timely is the fact these patterned inequalities persist even in an organizational form that thrives on a normative basis of equality. The implicit hierarchy kept the community in a position with the least amount of power or ability to exert their will. The beneficiary’s agenda did not supercede the interests of the state (even though some of those interests were isomorphic with their own) or the sponsor’s (which only occasionally converged with community interests). Instead the beneficiary’s interests and influence were peripheral and subordinate, not directive or egalitarian. Another key finding indicated that the state’s influence is heightened when the beneficiary group lacks both legitimacy and a structural forum from which they can articulate their needs and demands.
Part of the potential richness of sponsorship as a sociological construct comes from the ability to connect an intermediary organization to the mechanisms the organizational actors use to exert and maintain their power over beneficiary groups. Our findings suggest that understanding sponsorship in its organizational field is particularly important in this hybrid form because these collaborative organizations are situated in an environment of entrenched inequality based on race, class, and other social categories (Fligstein, 2001). These organizations are embedded in a context of differential power where some actors lay claim to legitimate authority and others do not. The state may facilitate organizational action and inhibit organizational roles in myriad ways (Fligstein, 2001). Future research might consider under what conditions participants’ interests and agendas converge. It might also consider whether close proximity to the state affects organizational processes differently when organizational partners have equal claim to legitimacy and do not differ on important social dimensions such as class and expert status.
One specific goal of this research was to enhance the theoretical potency of the concept of sponsorship by exploring the mediating effects of the state on relationships between sponsors and beneficiaries. Our case study offers a clear step toward linking sponsorship to issues of organizational structure and agenda-setting processes. This research further contributes to sociological discourse by situating sponsorship in a complex organizational field whereby the state exerts pressure on innovative structural relationship (Fligstein, 2001). At least in the case of collaborative arrangements such as university-community partnerships, the sponsor would not be a social change actor if not for changes in the distribution of federal responsibilities and new mechanisms by which the federal government can provide money to support such beneficence. The influence of the state on these hybrids that emerged from federal devolution of welfare provision is a particularly salient issue given increasing prevalence of non-governmental organizations that have developed out of changes at the federal level. With little end in sight for the hegemony of market processes over state responsibilities, we are likely to continue to see sponsorship increase its prominence as an organizational relationship. We cannot overlook the sociological questions of who has power and to what end, even in organizational relationships premised on equality or cooperation.
We sincerely appreciate the assistance of the editor of Qualitative Sociology and anonymous reviewers who offered helpful insights that improved this paper. This material is based upon work while the third author, Beth A. Rubin, was serving at the National Science Foundation. Any opinion, findings and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Any errors that remain are the sole responsibility of the authors.