How Nonprofit Organizations Make Their Communities Safer

In 2016, the FBI reported a 4.1 percent increase in violent crime from the previous year. With more than 1.2 million incidences, that report claims that cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Las Vegas—cities that have all struggled with pervasive crime for decades—are driving the recent increase in violent crime in the United States. Historically, in understanding the causes and mitigating factors of violent crime, most criminology and sociology research has pointed to external factors such as changes in policing, incarceration rates, and childhood exposure to lead. However, new research from New York University provides insight on an internal factor’s effect on crime rates: the prevalence of local nonprofit organizations.

In their paper, authors Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar examine the effect of existing “community nonprofits”—those which focus on confronting violent crime and building stronger communities—on the frequency of crime in various cities. Previous studies have used regression analysis to uncover a positive correlation between the prevalence of nonprofits addressing violence and the level of violent crime, reflecting the fact that areas with higher crime rates also house nonprofits focused on crime reduction. However, these studies have failed to address issues of endogeneity, that is, how other factors related to the presence of nonprofits addressing violence and crime rates may distort their actual relationship, such as poverty or educational attainment.

Using data from the 1991-2014 Uniform Crime Reports, Censuses and American Community Surveys, as well as the National Center for Charitable Statistics, Sharkey et al. address these issues by conducting a robust analysis focusing on annual changes in the number of specific types of nonprofits. They utilize an instrumental variable approach, in which they use the number of nonprofits devoted to arts, the humanities, and the environment as a measure of the prevalence of overall nonprofits, including those devoted to crime prevention. The authors also control for other factors including incarceration rates, the size of the police force, and interstate differences. This approach ensures that any change in the crime rate can be causally linked to changes in the prevalence of nonprofit organizations.

Their results indicate that the addition of 10 community nonprofits per 100,000 residents led to a nine percent decline in the murder rate, a six percent decline in the violent crime rate, and a four percent decline in the property crime rate, on average. The study further states that Chicago experienced one of the largest reductions in crime between 1990 and the 2000s. This may have happened, in part, by the addition of 47 community nonprofits per 100,000 residents during this time period. Based on these findings, the authors believe there is evidence of the independent role that community nonprofits play in reducing crime rates in cities across the United States.

This study is not unique in exploring the role of community strength on reducing crime. The authors site a wealth of literature on the importance of social cohesion and informal social control on limiting violence in a community. However, few studies use such scientific mechanisms to better understand the decline of violent crime because of the challenges they face in measuring community strength. Through better data collection and a unique analytical approach, Sharkey et al. have validated the work of organizational leaders, residents, and activists in making their communities safer. Furthermore, their study provides strong evidence that communities have more power than previously understood in reducing violent crime and improving the overall well-being of cities.

Article source: Sharkey, Patrick, Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, and Delaram Takyar. “Community and the Crime Decline: The Causal Effect of Local Nonprofits on Violent Crime.” American Sociological Review Vol. 82, Issue 6. (2017): 1214-1240.

Featured photo: cc/(Rawpixel, photo ID: 668218790, from iStock by Getty Images)

Anne Gunderson
Engineer turned policymaker. Detroiter turned Chicagoan.

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