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Central Park

Exploring government-nonprofit relationships through spending on local parks

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Research by Humphrey School of Public Affairs Assistant Professor Daniel Cheng explores the changing relationships between local governments and nonprofit organizations. As nonprofits raise more money to support public services, their role is no longer limited to just delivering and implementing those services. They now get involved in both service planning and design. Cheng's research looks at how this dynamic plays out in parks and recreation services in large American cities. “We see the emergence of volunteer groups, 'friends' groups, that are set up to offset the government funding shortfall in these areas. They do things like cleanups and other tasks to help maintain the parks,” says Cheng. “These organizations become more prominent as government faces budget challenges ... They play a very important role in mobilizing volunteer support, raising public dollars, and the like.”

Cheng found that when nonprofits start to take on more important roles, that influences local governments’ decisions to finance these services. “Local governments begin to invest less in these services when nonprofits invest more. However, the total support for these services actually increases,” Cheng says. This challenges the existing knowledge we have about government/nonprofit relationships, he says. “The next question is: when nonprofits play these kinds of roles, do they result in a better quality of public services, or worse?”