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Rustandy Center Awards First PhD Research Dissertation Prize
UChicago and Booth PhD candidate Yuhao Zhuang studies organizational theory, economic sociology, and political sociology.
- January 13, 2022
In spring 2021, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation invited University of Chicago PhD students and recent graduates pursuing research on social impact topics to apply for its inaugural Social Impact Dissertation Prize. The prize—$10,000 in funding—was open to recent UChicago graduates (up to one year after receipt of a doctoral degree) and current doctoral students in their third year or higher in the advanced stages of writing their dissertation. In this Q-and-A, the Rustandy Center sits down with this year’s winner Yuhao Zhuang for the paper, “Varieties of Competition: Nonprofit Status Hierarchies and Grassroots-Oriented Corporate Philanthropy in China.” Zhuang is a PhD candidate in the Joint Program in Sociology and Business.
How did you come up with/settle on the topic for your dissertation?
Yuhao Zhuang: My earlier research projects focused on social services organizations in contemporary China and their various tactics to cope with the authoritarian state’s increasing interventions. In an interview with a services organization leader, I incidentally learned that local firms were increasingly donating to grassroots nonprofits—bottom-up, politically precarious charitable groups that were not spin-offs of any government agencies. This sounded surprising to me at that moment, as prior research assumed that firms in China primarily supported government-led philanthropic initiatives. I then began to analyze national corporate donation data available, and preliminary results suggested that more than 40 percent of total corporate donation amount in China was received by grassroots nonprofits recently. To explain this unanticipated yet intriguing donation pattern, I decided to study this grassroots-oriented corporate philanthropy for my dissertation and use it as an illuminating case to shed light on novel forms of corporate social responsibility in emerging markets.
How would you describe the goal of your research?
This particular dissertation paper investigates what kinds of Chinese grassroots nonprofits are able to receive larger donations from corporate sponsors. I hypothesize that the attractiveness of grassroots organizations is conditioned by social status hierarchies that they are exposed to, usually in the form of local nonprofit performance ratings systems. In cities where frequent exposure to performance ratings induces intense interorganizational competition for higher standings, grassroots nonprofits are more incentivized to invest in technological and organizational capabilities that in turn provide means for firms’ philanthropic programs. Besides, when local performance contests are characterized by ambiguous criteria, grassroots nonprofits are more flexible to corporate donors’ commercial goals pertinent to core business interests, which have been previously discounted by civil society. To test these propositions, I am conducting a comparative qualitative study of corporate donations flowing to three coastal Chinese cities. In total, I intend to draw on 92 interviews with nonprofit workers, corporate donors, and state officials and 15 months of participant observation from related charitable events. This project is innovative, as it is one of the few empirical studies that will show how interorganizational competition for social status differs across ratings systems with various structural characteristics. It will also demonstrate why some politically fragile social organizations get to form partnerships with companies in an authoritarian regime.
“Why did individuals with such considerable expertise choose to commit to these small, politically precarious services groups rather than large, well-developed government-led charities? My exploration of this crucial question eventually evolves into a PhD dissertation seeking to understand how corporate, political, and social services actors jointly shape the philanthropic landscape in emerging markets and nondemocratic contexts.”
What inspired you to pursue your PhD?
My research interest in social welfare provision stems directly from my previous volunteer experience within several bottom-up, relatively small nonprofit organizations—many of which were ostensibly illegal as they were unregistered—in China. As a part-time volunteer in these nonprofits working on disabilities, urban poverty, and rural migration, my major responsibilities then were to identify marginalized social groups to be targeted by services and devise on-the-ground action plans to address needs of these populations. When I first participated in the volunteer programs organized by these nonprofits, I was immediately stunned by their efficient and professional working practices. Most of my experienced colleagues were able to locate and solve problems for their social services tasks in a rather short period of time, and they were extremely knowledgeable about potential legal, political, and practical barriers to the successful execution of their work. Why did individuals with such considerable expertise choose to commit to these small, politically precarious services groups rather than large, well-developed government-led charities? My exploration of this crucial question eventually evolves into a PhD dissertation seeking to understand how corporate, political, and social services actors jointly shape the philanthropic landscape in emerging markets and non-democratic contexts.
Anything else you’d like to add?
My other research studies how boundaries are drawn between public and private spheres across diverse political contexts. In a collaborative working paper, for instance, Elisabeth Clemens and I use quantitative techniques to track the contracting behavior of the federal government of the United States in the last four decades. We show that political and partisan agendas, rather than efforts to optimize economic efficiency, shape the decisions to lodge government functions in the private sector vis-à-vis the public sector. In general, this line of research seeks to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how government contracting intersects with state building and party polarization.
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