Friday, July 07, 2006

Part 1: Should School Gardens be Nonprofits?

Summer is here, schools are empty, and Urban Sprouts is in rest and reflection mode. Instead of teaching classes, I am focusing on my own classes as a student, in USF's Masters of Nonprofit Administration program. USF provides a strong theoretical background for all those nonprofit skills most of us learn as we go.

Our first course covered the history of nonprofits in the US and theories of how and why the nonprofit sector operates. I wrote a paper on the school garden movement in the Bay Area. I wanted to know if it makes sense that we use the nonprofit sector to provide important educational services inside the public school district. Are we just giving the government cool stuff for free? I learned some interesting things through my research, which resulted in Urban Sprouts' decisions 1) to deepen our government partnerships, and 2) to develop a program to intentionally involve middle and high school parents in our school garden work.

In the next few posts, I'll tell you more about what I learned.

First, I found that the nonprofit or voluntary sector is often used to provide school gardens because the public or government sector doesn't.

Theory: The first theories I looked at, market failure and government failure* theories, explain that the free market will not provide the right amount of a public good, because people are not willing pay for something that they can get for free. That's why governments use tax dollars to pay for things like bridges, libraries and national defense. However, governments can only provide things that the majority of people know they want. Services that are innovative, new, untested, will go unprovided. This may leave a significant number of people unsatisfied. Here the nonprofit sector comes in. It meets the need for diverse, experimental and grassroots activities, initiated by us, the people, without waiting around for the big, slow government system to kick in and meet our needs.

Case Studies: I gathered information on four school gardens to use as case studies, three in SF and one in the South Bay. I found that:

  • All four gardens were supported by voluntary organizations (aka nonprofits)
  • Three were initiated by parents and/or teachers and one by an outside nonprofit based in the neighborhood
  • Schools say they need School Garden Coordinators: teachers cannot drive school garden programs alone, due to time constraints and lack of knowledge.
  • All four schools chose not to administer the school garden program through the schools (local district bureaucracy), because of: School budget constraints; Delays in processing donations and receiving funds; Loss of flexibility by running funding and staffing decisions through district ;Administrative instability: changes in district leadership, school administration; Political instability: changes in district-wide goals and priorities.
  • All four chose voluntary sector solutions to administer the school garden program: one PTA, two school garden nonprofit orgs, one other community nonprofit.
Next time: weaknesses of the nonprofit sector!

P.S. I know you're used to cute stories about what the kids are doing, so tell me if you think this stuff is boring!

* Good reading: Salamon, Lester M. (1995). Partners in Public Service; Smith, Steven Rathgeb, and Lipsky, Michael. (1993). Nonprofits for Hire: The Welfare State in the Age of Contracting.