The Political Embeddedness of Voluntary Action: The Case of Local Philanthropic COVID-19 Relief Funds

Published date01 August 2023
AuthorLaurie E. Paarlberg,Jin Ai,Megan LePere-Schloop,Marlene Walk
Date01 August 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(7) 1402 –1431
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231177217
The Political
Embeddedness of
Voluntary Action:
The Case of Local
Philanthropic COVID-19
Relief Funds
Laurie E. Paarlberg1, Jin Ai1,
Megan LePere-Schloop2,
and Marlene Walk1
Scholars and policymakers have long been interested in the complex
relationships between political institutions and voluntary collective action.
However, the reciprocal nature of their relationships complicates empirical
analysis: voluntary action supports democratic institutions and political
institutions enable voluntary action. This article examines the relationship
between political institutions and the activation of local voluntary action
in the context of COVID-19 funds managed by community philanthropic
organizations. We find that political engagement, policy signaling, and political
competition all support the emergence of a COVID-19 fund. The findings
advance our understanding of the significant role that political institutions
play in activating voluntary action.
voluntary action, philanthropy, government institutions, COVID-19, political
1Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, USA
2The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA
Corresponding Author:
Laurie E. Paarlberg, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University Purdue University
Indianapolis, 301 University Blvd, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA.
1177217AAS0010.1177/00953997231177217Administration & SocietyPaarlberg et al.
Paarlberg et al. 1403
The relationship between voluntary collective action and political institutions
is a matter of both theoretical and practical significance. While economic
theory foregrounds government, viewing voluntary action such as nonprofit
provision of public goods and services as a response to government failure
(Weisbrod, 1977), political theory presents a more complex story. Since
Tocqueville’s early description of associational life in the United States,
political theorists have argued that strong democratic political institutions
both emerge from and sustain rich voluntary associational life (Paxton, 2002).
In other words, strong associational life and various forms of voluntary action
bolster political institutions (Cuthill & Fien, 2005; Paxton, 2002) and healthy
democratic institutions support voluntary action (Andrews, 2012; Skocpol
et al., 2000) in a virtuous cycle.
This theorized reciprocity makes it difficult to study the relationship between
voluntary action and political institutions. Disasters, as strategic research sites,
provide opportunities to test these theories (Merton, 1987; Stinchcombe, 2005)
as they shed light on how preexisting institutions influence the emergence of
specific forms of voluntary action (Dutta, 2017). While most disasters are geo-
graphically isolated events, COVID-19 simultaneously affected communities
around the world, allowing for a rich comparison across place.
In this paper, we leverage the COVID-19 context to address the research
question: what is the relationship between political institutions and voluntary
action? We argue that voluntary action is not merely a substitute or response
to government (in)action. Rather, voluntary action is embedded in local polit-
ical institutions. At the most basic level, government facilitates voluntary
action in that nonprofits and private foundations are legally constituted by
government policies and agencies (Clemens, 2020). However, other, less
apparent, political factors shape voluntary action including local government
capacity and policy, residents’ propensity to engage with government, resi-
dents’ political ideology, and local political competition. We test our hypoth-
eses using data on the emergence of COVID-19 philanthropic funds hosted
by local community philanthropic organizations (CPOs) during the first quar-
ter of the pandemic. The emergence of COVID-19 funds activated voluntary
action by allowing local individuals and organizations to pool their private
contributions to address community needs. We find that while voluntary
action in time of disaster may address problems in the short-term, the capac-
ity and willingness to take voluntary action is rooted in local political institu-
tions, which may affect the resilience of communities in the long-term.
Leveraging the COVID-19 context, our paper makes both theoretical and
practical contributions. While theories of government failure and sector

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