Food Bank Empiricism

Despite writing (and re-writing) an article on mobile soup kitchen volunteers and the fact that I should know something about food banks, I remain unclear on the actual demand for food bank services. Does it rise and fall during certain times of the year?

According to a historical index of google searches, it does:



November. People search for “food bank” at the end of November. Presumably this is due to Thanksgiving and Christmas being “a time for giving.” Charity is more at the forefront for whatever reason, and I assume people are looking for ways to give…in November.

The real question, of course, is this what drives the trend we see?

If we took it from this article here:

The reason is due to food stamp cuts. I don’t doubt this demand-side influence for the current spike in food bank interest, but I doubt it has much, if anything, to do with the cyclical story we see in the graph above–food stamps aren’t an annual cut, thankfully. I suspect a clue is given in the above-linked article:

“As many gorge on holiday feasts, food banks report an increased demand among the poor”

There’s definitely a guilt appeal in this headline. Suggesting that you get to eat and get fat, but what about those who can’t? So, perhaps, in this time of gluttony, we see more appeals for altruism. Perhaps it’s a sort of karmic balancing act.

It is interesting to thing what came first: is it the turkey (hehe) or the egg? Does news media drive a trend of searching for food banks (the largest chunk of charity-focused media is published around now)? Does the inclination to search for charity opportunities at this time of the year lead to articles? More likely, I’d presume them to be part of the same phenomenon, a self-reinforcing cultural predilection toward charity around thanksgiving and solstice holidays.

But still, I know nothing of the demand side–I assume people are needy year-round. This year notwithstanding, what is the cycle of demand for food charity needs? Are people less likely to be employed in the winter? I can see the potential for seasonal workers to struggle, but I wonder if the magnitude is as great as the supply-side interest. For other charity items–such as winter clothes–the cyclical interest makes more sense. At the same time, I wonder if giving warm clothing is popular because people need warm clothing, or if it is popular because this is the time of the year to give? Were “giving time” in mid-July, perhaps we’d see an uptick in seersucker shorts donations.

The cycle above seems to suggest that either people, in mass,  are only made to be conscious of hunger needs at certain times of the year, or, alternatively, people that search for food charity on google have their finger on the pulse of need. I doubt the latter.

Perhaps a most interesting takeaway from all this can be seen when we return to the matter of food stamps and food banks. Though one is a government service and one is a privately provided good, the latter has been legitimized as an appropriate supplement to the former. In other words, emergency food (as it was originally called) is a taken for granted, institutionalized, stop-gap measure to provide for the needy. Whereas before there may have been some semblance of a welfare state, now it’s privately provided welfare.

Secondarily, how interesting is it that we conceive of need as food. Food isn’t hard to come by in the US. Considering the amount that is thrown away by most Americans that some are hungry doesn’t appear to be a lack of actual edible materials. Instead, it’s a distribution problem, moreover, its a lack of medium of exchange for food, and most specifically, its the inability of some people to secure that means of exchange on a regular basis. So, we cut out all the disease and cut straight to the symptom. Both SNAP and food banks care that you’re hungry, not why your hungry. The definition of a stop-gap measure, or continuing with the analogy: a band-aid.

The article has a point. Perhaps in this time of gluttony, there is a need for charity. But also in less gluttonous times, there is a need for charity. But perhaps the idea of charity needs to be redefined: why food? Why private?

I’d love to interview the guy who supports cutting food stamps and makes a weekend out of doling out soup and cheer at the local soup kitchen.


OE and cOffEe

Perhaps it was the endless cups I drink to survive my first quarter of grad school, but in reading on organizational ecology, I immediately thought of its applicability organizational field of coffee shops. I spend a great deal of time at Philz Coffee in Palo Alto. I’ve heard countless customers chastised for mistakenly ordering “tall” or “grande” beverages, accidentally using the corporate Starbucks lingo in an establishment that prides itself as the antithesis of mass-produced coffee. But Philz, and many others like, owes a lot to the coffee corporation it so often derides. Starbucks popularized the connection between “third places” and coffee consumption, effectively bringing coffee out of the Folger’s can and into public view. It effectively created the market environment in which Philz is now situated.

Looking at coffee shops through the lens of organizational ecology we are presented with an interesting ecological case. First, we see a mutually legitimating relationship between organizational forms engaged in competition. Second is the problem that, though literature on organizational ecology (OE) makes carrying capacity appear relatively fixed, the growth of the coffee shops across America shows that in some situations carrying capacity can be manipulated. The second problem is that while OE emphasizes the power of internal and external inertia in hindering change, some organizations do change. What I present here is largely speculation, but it’s intended to question the mechanisms by which theories of OE operate.

In the Carroll and Swaminathan (2000) article on microbreweries they show that the consolidation of a few massive brewers created space for small specialty brewers to grow. In response to this microbrewery growth, the generalist firms have attempted to expand outward to consume some of the space occupied by specialists, only to find that this expansion is bounded by their identity, as defined by customers (Hsu and Hannan, 476), and they responded to this limitation by hiding their identity in releasing “craft” beers (e.g. Blue Moon) or buying smaller breweries. The story with coffee shops is a similar phenomenon but the mechanisms may be different. Despite Starbucks’ aesthetic of a homey warm place to sit and drink coffee, it has lost cache among a customer base deterred by its ubiquitous and corporate qualities. When Facebook offers for me to “check in” at Philz, I do. If Starbucks did, I wouldn’t. Local coffee establishments that profess pride in their coffees do as much as possible to differentiate themselves from the perceived corporate feel of Starbucks. The emphasis in local shops tends to be on the craft of coffee making and bean selection, with shops like Philz going to great lengths to demonstrate that each cup of coffee is made individually (even when it takes an extra five minutes). This identity of craft local coffee shops is legitimated in that it is a response to the already legitimated form of Starbucks. Ruef’s suggests that new forms are legitimated in response to social demands (661), in this case, perhaps consumer dissatisfaction with Starbucks. However, these new coffee shop forms seem to have stimulated dissatisfaction with Starbucks. I didn’t struggle with Starbucks until I started to go to better, perhaps snootier coffee shops where I learned a vocabulary for coffee and coffee shops and further why Starbucks was not good based on this vocabulary. Whatever the differences, Starbucks and firms like Philz are symbiotically related. Starbucks popularized the model that Philz has co-opted. Philz legitimates the Starbucks model and the practice of going to a third place to drink coffee and meet. What remains to be studied is the founding rate of local coffee shops in relation to the growth in corporate ones. While Carroll and Swaminathan propose that legitimation occurred between organizations on the same level (748), it appears possible that local coffee shops and corporate chains mutually legitimate each other.

If organizations can increase demand for their product as suggested above, it may also be possible for them to increase the carrying capacity of their organizational field—especially if that carrying capacity is reliant on customer demand. As defined by Ruef, carrying capacity “defines the maximum number of organizations in a population…that can be supported by the social environment at a given point in time” (Ruef, 678). The case of coffee shops seems to show otherwise. Prior to Starbucks, there was effectively no widespread[1] carrying capacity for coffee shops—but Starbucks seems to have established itself regardless, possibly calling upon the latent interests of consumers to have community spaces and creating a need where there was previously little demand.  Going to get coffee or do work at coffee shops is a thing to do. Which coffee shop you patronize then is an expression of identity on how you do that thing.

There are many ways to determine organizational carrying capacity. Geographically, there is a carrying capacity for coffee shops when it comes to spatial proximity (though Starbucks regularly defies this which makes for its own interesting case). It seems however that, in the food services industry, and particularly for coffee shops, holding constant the supply of coffee beans, storefront space, water and employees, the greatest resource affecting carrying capacity is customer demand. The fact that such demand has evidently been driven by the practices and presence of coffee shops—possibly through changes to the cultural meaning of coffee and its consumption in third places—indicates that carrying capacity can be manipulated. The same appears possible in the microbrewery story. The creation of craft beers may have fed the thirst of a small market segment that imbued the product with cultural meaning and distinction spreading the demand for a product that enabled people to identify as sophisticated consumers. In response to Hawley, Hannan and Freeman modify the idea that organizations are isomorphic to the diversity of environments by suggesting that the mechanism for isomorphism with environment must be explained and that organizations are simultaneously situated in multiple environments. To this, I’d add that consideration must be given to the fact that organizations play a role in shaping the environment that imposes constraints on them. If this weren’t true, then I wouldn’t expect marketing to be effective.

In contrast to coffee shops, other organizational fields may struggle with manipulating carrying capacity depending on how carrying capacity is determined. In the field of electric utilities for example, government sanction and physical space (for power lines or otherwise) create less manipulable restraints. The legal field may find itself in a middle ground. The state sanctions who can practice law, but attorneys can drive interest in litigiousness and hence create a demand for services that may expand the legal field’s carrying capacity.  All this is to say that the determinants of carrying capacity must be given a more prominent place in analysis because not all organization populations are exposed to similarly determined carrying capacities.

In the coffee shop field there are a few major players: Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s. Only Starbucks began as a coffee-focused organization but the others have adopted coffee sales and, to varying degrees, third place qualities into their models. Hannan and Freeman say: “Failing churches don’t become retail stores” (957), but do challenged fast food restaurants become coffee shops? Both Dunkin and McDonald’s have reoriented in ways I presume to be responses to a demand established by Starbucks. Over half of Dunkin’s sales are coffee, many of its commercials poke fun at the pretentiousness of Starbucks coffee lingo, and in 2007 the slogan was changed to “America Runs on Dunkin” owing Dunkin claim to the coffee of the proletariat in contrast the perceived elitism of Starbucks. Dunkin appears to have entrenched its identity as no-frills coffee. McDonald’s, instead of playing up a populist appeal like Dunkin, has reformulated (or attempted to reformulate) its image as cosmopolitan with McCafe (which was created during the initial Starbucks growth spurt and saw a resurgence around 2005-2010). It seems Starbucks presented a challenge to Dunkin and McDonald’s, both of which were forced to contend with this shifting environment and new demand. One affirmed its identity, one reformulated its identity. As mentioned earlier, which coffee shop you decide to patronize can be seen as an identity expression. When I go to Philz, I see other people interested in being seen as going to Philz—and the coffee is pretty good. I doubt it’s the other way around.

Starbucks too has had to manipulate its identity when competing with local coffee shops. Many of these shops have greater legitimacy and authenticity in claims of “local” and “artisan” than Starbucks. In response, we have seen recent attempts for Starbucks to achieve the aesthetic of authenticity through the purchase of LaBoulange bakery through which a local and artisan appeals are made. While this may not win resolute anti-Starbucks coffee consumers, it may pull in customers from the margins as some major brewing companies were able to do with their new artisan labels (Carroll and Swaminathan). If Hsu and Hannan’s claim that organizational consolidation should affect the persistence of identities (476), we would expect something of a backlash for these companies making these changes. But it appears these changes in identity appeals have been carefully calculated and no real backlash has been observed. In sum, while Hannan and Freeman’s view that it is hard for organizations to adapt due to internal and external inertia, more needs to be understood about the conditions enabling some firms to adapt and change identities while others struggle.

In 1967, Stinchcombe argued that the social structure of society impacts the foundation, survival and character of organizations. Organizational ecology is one extension on this. However, it is limited in its ability to explain organizations and organization populations, capturing a great deal of phenomena without capturing much of the mechanisms by which phenomena occur. What I have tried to demonstrate through discussion of coffee shops in competition is that organizations and organization populations are not as rigid as presented in the organizational ecology literature. They are not merely environmental takers responding to the limits of an ecological system and inflexible in regard to identity and niche. It appears through this example that, deliberately or not, they play a role in shaping the environment on whose resources they depend. If we account for this possibility and moreover consider the circumstances in which organizations and organization populations may be able to influence their ecological constraints, the theories contributed from OE can become more useful analytical tools through which to view organizations in competition under environmental constraints.

I wrote this in a Starbucks. I ordered a medium coffee. The barista scoffed: “Grande.”


Stinchcombe, Arthur.  1965.  “Social Structure and Organizations.”  Pp. 142-169 in Handbook of Organizations, ed. by J.G. March, McGraw-Hill.


Hannan, Michael T. and John Freeman. 1977. “The population ecology of organizations.” AJS 82: 929-64.


Carroll, Glenn and Anand Swaminathan.  2000.  “Why the Microbrewery Movement?  Organizational Dynamics of Resource Partitioning in the U.S. Brewing Industry.”  AJS 106(3): 715-762.


Hsu, Greta and Michael T. Hannan.  2005.  “Identities, Genres, and Organizational Forms.”  Organization Science 16(5): 474-90.


Ruef, Martin.  2000.  “The emergence of organizational forms: A community ecology approach.”  AJS 106: 658-714.


Freeman, John and Pino Audia. 2006. “Community Ecology and the Sociology of Organizations.”  Annual Review of Sociology 32: 145-69

[1] For simplicity I am ignoring the pockets of coffee culture (e.g Seattle), that existed in the US at the time Starbucks came to the forefront

Do Expectations in the Government Affect the Likelihood of Volunteering for Charity?

This is a question that arose out of ethnographic research I did in 2009 and 2010 on mobile soup kitchen volunteers. Many of them–many who were fairly wealthy–said they handed out soup in the city because they didn’t expect the government to do the work they did. They didn’t trust the government to do it.

Using GSS data from 2002 and 2004, I explore this question in a bit more detail, first looking at descriptives, then creating an index for government expectations (alpha=.73)

Here are the slides for a presentation I gave on the subject.

Spoiler alert:

The less you expect from the government to provide social goods, the MORE likely you are to volunteer. Like, so seriously guys.


Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10

Proposed: Foundations, Public Goods, Elites and the Formation of Civic Obligation

In late July 2013, the New York Times ran what would end up being a controversial op-ed piece written by Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire and noted philanthropist Warren Buffett. He wrote:

“Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent.”

What Buffett calls attention to is a profoundly troubling feature of society—inequality and philanthropy are growing together. There are, of course, a few ways to read this point. One, philanthropy is growing in response to the need created by poverty and inequality, two, philanthropy is ineffective at addressing need, or three, more cynically, philanthropy is growing without regard to need and is driven by some other factor. Buffett suggests this other factor in his op-ed saying that those who accumulate massive wealth justify their wealth by “sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

The various reads on Buffett’s point give rise to an important sociological question—to what does philanthropy respond that causes it to grow? Is it in response to growing economic inequality and the needs of the disadvantaged or does it arise from conceptions noblesse oblige? If the latter, how does a sense of civic obligation become part of an elite group identity? These questions are momentously important for our time.

Bolstering Buffett’s account of philanthropic growth, the US is currently experiencing a second golden age in American philanthropic regimes. Analogous to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are Warren Buffet and Bill Gates along with a host of others with immense net-worth and philanthropic foundations to their names. As shown in the figures, from 2001 to 2011, the number of family foundations in the US increased almost 1300%, from 3,219 to 40,456, the total assets held by these foundations increased nearly 240% from $124 billion to $294 billion, and the total amount given by these foundations increased around 300% from $7 billion to $21 billion (an average giving-to-assets ratio of 6.8%, or just over the legally mandated disbursement rate of 5% for maintenance of foundation tax status).



Further underscoring the importance of studying the formation of philanthropic interests in family foundations is the fact that trust in the nonprofit sector is increasing while trust in government is at an all-time low (Pew). Though the nonprofit sector and public sector may both provide public goods, the nonprofit sector is distinct from the public sector in that it is noncoercive—it cannot force collectives toward common ends—and thus it relies on goodwill. The effective use of state power fades in tandem with trust in the state (Frumkin 2002) and the nonprofit sector rises to fill the gap. This can be described by the three-failures theory suggesting that non-profits step in where for-profit markets and government actions fall short (Steinberg 2006). This is due to consumers’ lack of faith that profit-maximizing institutions have consumers’ best interests in mind (Hansmann 1987) and the government’s failure to provide for the minority interests of the electorate (Weisbrod 1975). Voluntary organizations can fail too. They are prone to amateurism, paternalism and particularism (Salamon 1987), and some, such as the private foundations that I am studying, may be criticized as bastions of plutocracy (Reich 2013). Placing nonprofits in the role of providing for the public good raises questions about their accountability. But if foundations are stepping into the role of providing public goods—we must understand what drives these decisions. It has been suggested that there are competing hypotheses for how nonprofit allocations are made: it could be in response to the desires of those making decisions or it could be in response to societal need (Frumkin 2002). With the current growing trend of vast financial resources being set aside in long-term, donor-directed and tax-incentivized private foundations, it is imperative to scrutinize the decisions of these foundations in distributing their money for the public good. I propose such scrutiny be conducted through empirical research.

First, based on data provided by the Foundation Center (, I will conduct a basic exploration of the grant-making habits of independent family foundations. Where are they giving their money—which locations and which causes? Which sectors receive the most attention and which sectors are neglected? The Foundation Center’s data can be cross-checked and verified with additional data collected through the Urban Institute’s National Center on Charitable Statistics (NCCS; which relies on a IRS-990 forms and shows revenues, expenses, and basic organizational activities for non-profits. Together, this data can show trends, both historically and currently, of growth, revenues and expenditures, including information on the sectors toward which expenditures are going.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, with assets of  $34,640,122,664 at the end of 2011 and an additional $37 billion pledge from Warren Buffett can be examined through these data. Foundation Center data provide deep understanding of this and other organizations’ grantmaking activities and allows for the study of trends in foundational giving across sectors and time periods. Mapping the diffusion of grant-making trends through family foundations may reveal the underlying drivers of foundation grantmaking processes. A network analysis may show that particular organizations such as the Gates Foundation are trendsetters, directly or indirectly influencing the giving behavior of other foundations. This means understanding the decision making behind foundation grantmaking is all the more important, possibly contributing to a theory of why some societal needs are met while others are not. Likewise, this may help to answer Peter Buffett’s criticism of elite philanthropy. I hypothesize that there are gaps in philanthropic focus due to the way in philanthropic trends diffuse. This would suggest that philanthropic interests do not grow in lockstep with social need and may require greater regulatory oversight than they currently receive.

These data alone however will not sufficiently answer my set of research questions. To do that, it is necessary to conduct open-ended interviews within foundations to better understand how decisions are made. To accomplish this task, I propose the use of ethnographic methods in the tradition of organizational ethnography in which I both assess the formal organizational structures within foundations as well as the informal means by which decisions are made. Through ethnography and interview, my focus will be on understanding how decisions are made about where to invest, to what degree decision makers are assessing need in making these decisions, and to what degree money is being invested toward assessed needs. Are they following the lead of other, more prominent foundations, or are they charting new territory? I will be interested to find how philanthropic ideas and practices emerge and diffuse through organizations and individuals. At Stanford, I am in a prime location to conduct this ethnographic work—there are 2,498 foundations in the Bay Area, 108 of which have assets over $50 million dollars. There is ample opportunity to conduct research within foundations from my current location.

Together, the mix of quantitative and ethnographic methods will provide solid empirical ground on which to assess questions of how philanthropy responds and grows in interaction with society at large, and how the elites within foundations develop a collective sense of noblesse oblige—potentially seeing philanthropy as an outgrowth of a collective identity that involves civic obligation. Understanding how philanthropists and their foundations see themselves and their work will provide the basis of knowledge from which philanthropy can be better enacted, regulated, and more efficiently meet its stated goals of improving society.

To this end, I seek to disseminate my findings widely, both through philanthropic foundations, policy think-tanks, and the PACS Center at Stanford of which I am a member. Philanthropy is of growing interest in the social sciences and, as I have shown, of growing relevance in our society. I seek to contribute to the conversation about how it can be understood and harnessed for social good. The NSF GRFP would better equip me to play a role in this emerging academic focus.

Frumkin, Peter. 2002. On Being Nonprofit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hansmann Henry. 1987. “Economic Theories of the Nonprofit Organizations,” In The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, ed. WW Powell. Yale University Press.

Reich, Rob. “What are foundations for?” Boston Review, March/April 2013.

Salamon, Lester M. 1987. “Of Market Failure, Voluntary Failure, and Third-Party Government: Towards a Theory of Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State.” Journal of Voluntary Action Research 16:29-49.

Steinberg, Richard. 2006. “Economic Theories of Nonprofit Organization.” In The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, ed. WW Powell and Richard Steinberg. Yale University Press.

Weisbrod, Burton A. 1975. “Toward aTheory of the Voluntary Nonprofit Sector in a Three-Sector Economiy.” In Altruism, Morality and Economic Theory, ed. Edmund S. Phelps. New York, Russell Sage Foundation.