Nonprofits aim to do good but may unwittingly perpetuate inequities in schools, U-M study finds

April 13, 2023
Concept illustration of students in a classroom looking at the teacher at the front of class. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

Nonprofit organizations aim to help schools and students in need by providing programs, supplies and other resources, but they may be unwittingly perpetuating inequities through how much, how often and to whom they support, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

Samantha Keppler, an assistant professor of technology and operations at U-M’s Ross School of Business, finds in a study forthcoming in Management Science that such resources don’t appear to be going to schools most in need. Wealthier schools, which work with nonprofits, too, have more resources that can be leveraged to boost nonprofit partnerships—resulting in a rich-get-richer effect.

Most teachers and administrators work to fill gaps between what their students need and what government funding provides, the study says, and the poorest schools struggle to afford the basics, such as computers and books. A common workaround comes in the form of partnerships with nonprofit organizations—encouraged by education leaders and policymakers.

Keppler’s research has included collecting and analyzing school data: She strategically sampled six K–8 schools with different levels of socioeconomic advantage and conducted 62 one-on-one interviews with a strategic sample of principals, teachers and parents, together with a survey of all school employees.

Contrary to prevailing belief, the study finds such workarounds are not a productive way for most resource-constrained organizations to bridge the gap to their better-funded counterparts. In the aggregate, Keppler found partnering workarounds are less productive at poorer schools for two reasons. First, because poorer schools have a lower partnership formation rate (number of partnerships formed per year) than wealthier schools. And second, because nonprofit relationships need to be frequently renewed or replaced, which is particularly hard for poorer schools to keep up with.

“Nonprofit organizations do a lot of good, but that good may not always improve equity,” Keppler said. “In fact, it may worsen it.

“Because wealthier schools come to have more nonprofit relationships in total, they get more benefit overall. This is how nonprofit organizations can come to maintain—even exacerbate—inequities, even as they ‘do good.'”

There are implications beyond education: The study reveals a potential drawback of “scaling up” in the nonprofit sector, which typically requires a narrower benefit (resource or service) provided to more people or organizations. This is how many nonprofits measure impact, but it puts a burden on the beneficiaries to work with many of them to get their diversity of needs met.

The study recommends nonprofits increase the cycle time of programs, resources and services offered to poorer schools (without increasing the effort required to build partnerships in the first place). Rather than, for example, partnering with five schools on a one-year cycle over three years (a total of 15 schools over the three years), nonprofits could improve equity by working with five of the neediest schools on a three-year cycle (a total of five schools over the three years).

Also recommended: School districts boost their involvement and role in fostering partnerships through greater monitoring and oversight.

An online platform, for instance, could act as a marketplace where schools and nonprofits could connect and create partnerships. It could also, the study notes, provide information about which schools partner with which nonprofits—and by making it public that could create reputational and possible funding penalties when nonprofits work primarily with wealthier schools.

“Assuming that the mission of school districts is to ensure equity among schools in their domain, efforts such as these to reduce existing nonprofit organization-partnering inequities are essential,” Keppler said.