Faculty Spotlight

February’s Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor, Nicole P. Marwell

February 15 Faculty Spotlight

As Associate Professor of Public Affairs, Academic Director of the Baruch Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management, and member of the sociology faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, one might think Nicole P. Marwell doesn’t have much time for extracurricular activities. But with a wealth of published pieces in leading journals, a book – Bargaining for Brooklyn: Community Organizations in the Entrepreneurial City– and numerous research projects, Associate Professor, Marwell doesn’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. We discuss her classes, students, articles, and current research.

Nicole, out of all the articles you’ve had published thus far which do you feel was the most essential?
That’s a hard question! I guess it would be a toss-up between my first article (“Privatizing the Welfare State: Nonprofit Community Organizations as Political Actors”) and my most recent one (“A Deficit Model of Collaborative Governance: Government-Nonprofit Fiscal Relations in the Provision of Child Welfare Services”). “Privatizing the Welfare State” really worked out of some of the key ideas that have driven my research ever since: the importance of looking at nonprofit organizations as part of multi-sectoral organizational systems; how good nonprofit management means understanding the political system as well as more traditional things like program management and budgeting; and the role that nonprofits play in making change – both good and bad – in the operation of cities. The most recent article, on child welfare nonprofits, rolls up these ideas into a more coherent policy statement about how we as New Yorkers have chosen to support our most vulnerable citizens: children at risk of abuse and neglect. The article argues that New York State has deputized nonprofits to secure those children’s social rights, but does not provide sufficient resources for nonprofits to cover the costs of securing those rights. This arrangement means that the nonprofits that serve children at risk of abuse and neglect are constantly in financial trouble. And what happens if the child welfare nonprofits go out of business? In a very practical sense, there is no alternative mechanism by which the state could serve these children most in need of its protection.

What have you learned from your students?
The students at the School of Public Affairs are terrific.They bring such a wealth of practical knowledge into the classroom, and from such a wide variety of different fields.They are also very current on what’s happening right now, which is a great thing to have when I’m teaching some of the MPA core courses, like “Introduction to Public Affairs” or “Introduction to Public and Nonprofit Management.” When I’m teaching conceptual things, like a general model for how public policy actually gets made, it’s such a treat to be able to draw on students’ experiences to illustrate the ideas. It gives me great faith in the power of those concepts when I can see over and over again how the theory really can help us understand hugely varying policy outcomes that occur at different points in time. It’s also wonderful to see that year in and year out, there are so many students who are committed to the pursuit of a career in public service. That’s especially important for me to be reminded of in those moments when things in the world look bleak.

Can you tell us about your current research projects? How will each of them make an impact on the world around us?
Let me tell you about two projects I’m working on at the moment.One is a continuing effort to understand the system of government contracting to nonprofits in New York City. New York City spends about $4 billion a year to support the city’s nonprofits, and New York State spends at least that much every year, too. But we know very little about where that money goes, why it goes where it goes, and what the implications of those spending patterns are. Getting a better handle on that will help us do a better job of getting social service resources to the areas of the city that need them most, and also help make sure that needy people across the city have access to a fuller range of assistance. My second project looks at the New York City Council’s discretionary funding for nonprofits. This is a system that lets Council members allocate funds to any nonprofits they want to support, without a competitive bidding process.Many people think the system should be abolished, and all city money should be allocated through competitive bidding. I disagree. I don’t believe that competitive processes always level the playing field.Sometimes they just let the biggest, richest nonprofit organizations win all the money. The discretionary funding process lets Council members respond to a wider range of constituent needs, and gives newer groups in our city the opportunity to access some modest public support.Yes, there have been problems of corruption in the process, but I’d say that’s a small proportion of the money. This research project is looking at these and other questions, including how discretionary funding helps Council members build relationships that might be useful for passing legislation or building future careers