Examining Organizational Capacity of Nonprofits in Persistently Poor, Rural Counties in the Southern Region of the United States
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Lisa Reyes Mason
David Dupper, John Orme, Patricia Freeland
Background: Rural residents in the U.S. are bearing adversities related to income, health, safety, and education. Environmental contextual factors such as isolation, lack of transportation, racism, depleted natural resources, and sparse economic investments contribute to social problems. One vulnerable region is the rural South, where persistent poverty is rampant. Nonprofits play a critical role in assisting rural communities to improve quality of life. Nonetheless, little knowledge exists about rural nonprofits, their organizational capacity, and how environmental context factors impact their operations. Methods: In the first study, a scoping review (N=15) was conducted to characterize the state of knowledge related to rural nonprofit organizational capacity. Focused on nonprofits in persistently poor counties in the rural South, the second study gathered data from IRS 990s and surveys about organizational characteristics and organizational capacity (N=292). An exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was also conducted to identify domains of organizational capacity. In the final study, a qualitative, multiple case study approach was deployed (N=9) to pursue a deeper understanding of the relationship between rurality and organizational capacity of human services nonprofits. Results: The scoping review uncovered 15 studies. Many strengths and challenges related to organizational capacity were identified; however, gaps in research were plentiful. The second study found the average nonprofit was less than 20 years old, had a budget less than $500,000, and was a human service-oriented organization. Strengths in organizational capacity included financial management, strategic planning, collaboration, and program planning, while challenges were personnel evaluation, succession planning, fundraising planning, and volunteer management. The EFA revealed four domains of organizational capacity. Findings from the third study showed that nonprofits were skilled in enduring change, innovation, fundraising, and financial accountability. Challenges related to being understaffed and underfunded such as recruitment efforts, assessment, and communications. Environmental contextual factors were barriers to nonprofits, including poverty, racism, isolation, transportation, and the “Good Old Boy” network. Conclusions: This dissertation provides knowledge in an area that has been minimally explored. Findings from the three studies will inform policy, education, and funding decisions in rural nonprofits whose work impacts rural America, where residents are in dire need of help.
Walters, Jayme Elizabeth, "Examining Organizational Capacity of Nonprofits in Persistently Poor, Rural Counties in the Southern Region of the United States. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2020.
Available for download on Friday, May 15, 2026
The scoping review portion of this document has been published. This has been noted at the top of that chapter.