Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Donna Haig-Friedman

Second Advisor

Mary Huff-Stevenson

Third Advisor

Nancy Strichman


Building on existing literature and research that identify nonprofits as agents of democracy, this research explores how community-based organizations (CBOs) advance social change. Strategically placed to improve social and economic security for individuals, families, and communities, CBOs have unique characteristics, successes, and challenges. The study seeks to understand, document, and apply these in building theories for use by practitioners, academics, public officials, and people living the experiences that public policies address. The research articulates a new model of social change, wherein individual transformation, organizational growth, community strengthening, and public policy work together in dynamic and complementary spheres.

The methodology is qualitative in nature, with a sample drawn from a pool of nonprofits in Boston, Massachusetts and Haifa, Israel, whose leaders participated in a multi-year peer learning exchange. Bridging between theory and practice and situated within a wider poverty policy context, the research synthesizes the thinking and experiences of activists from externally-recognized high impact organizations.

The power of interconnectedness can be heard in the study's findings. These successful CBOs: 1. Integrate service provision with advocacy and facilitate diverse partnerships, with each of these core strategies relating to and affecting one another; 2.Intentionally employ people with the lived experiences that organizational missions seek to address; 3. Possess an internal, rather than external, locus of power; and 4. Systematically search for and create new ways to define, capture, and measure their social change outcomes.

Threads of interdependency within these cases are found to be woven into a knot, a bond of knowledge, which is tightened by stakeholders as they pull to meet their own needs, and strengthened as the players explain themselves to each other. A key implication of the study is that relationships, informed by communication, agreed-upon language and commonly-constructed tools, are critical for social change. Recommendations therefore suggest ways for increasing conversations between and across stakeholder groups.