Texas Tech University

Political Science Researcher Helps Nonprofits Help People

Glenys Young

February 21, 2020


Nathaniel Wright studies factors that affect the outcomes of community-based organizations and programs.

In February, Texas Tech is once again highlighting the outstanding research being conducted by our talented and dedicated Red Raiders through our "TTU ❤️ Research" series. This year, we are pairing this effort with Black History Month in order to feature our influential black faculty and students who have had a tremendous impact through their research. This is the seventh in this series.

Nathaniel Wright is passionate about helping nonprofit, community-based organizations help disadvantaged people. And with his background, it's little wonder.

"I had a very unconventional upbringing," Wright explained.

His mother, born in 1927, grew up picking cotton and tobacco in rural North Carolina and cleaning the houses of "rich white people" to make ends meet. At age 55, she decided she hadn't done enough to give back to the world, so she moved to New York and adopted Wright and another child.

"Although she had only completed grade school and never stepped foot on a college campus, she understood the importance of getting an education," he said. "I remember when I got to high school, she would save money in a coffee can she kept under her bed to pay for my college tour trips. She was determined to make sure I went to college and, like most moms, made a lot of sacrifices to make sure it happened."

It did happen, but she didn't get to see it. When Wright was a senior in high school, his mother died of cancer. In her memory, he promised to do whatever it took to complete his education. After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in public administration at Binghamton University, Wright became a city planner in upstate New York.

"I got to see firsthand the structural economic factors in marginalized communities that fueled economic inequality," he said. "I became very interested in studying how institutions such as nonprofit, community-based organizations and public institutions could help improve community-level outcomes."

He soon decided he wanted to help nonprofits and community leaders make better decisions in addressing poverty and overall quality of life in marginalized communities. While learning the necessary skills to achieve his goal, he earned his doctorate in public administration from the University of Kansas.

Now an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Department of Political Science, Wright researches organizational practices that can improve nonprofit performance as well as the internal and external factors that could predict program success. He studies nonprofit, community-based organizations, specifically, because of their efforts to build equality across society.

"If government at every level is going to rely on community-based organizations for the provision of public goods, it is important to know whether they are improving community outcomes," Wright said. "This research has major significance to addressing this major gap and helping researchers and nonprofit managers better understand what factors help this subsector of organizations revitalize distressed communities across the country."

And now, he's not merely doing research, he's actually consulting with nonprofit leaders throughout the nation to identify and solve their problems so they can better serve the people who rely on them.

"I often receive phone calls and emails from nonprofit executive directors wanting to know what 'levers' need to be adjusted to improve their organization's performance," Wright said. "I believe my research has opened the door for these conversations. I don't call myself a nonprofit guru, but it's good to know that nonprofit leaders are interested in my work."

Wright has certainly carved out a niche for himself, both in academia and the nonprofit community. Although he admits it hasn't always been easy, he has created pathways leading to the ends he hopes to achieve.

"The greatest challenge for me to overcome as a scholar is not seeing a lot of people who look like me in academia," he said. "I currently am the only African-American in my department and, although it gets lonely, I have learned the importance of building bridges across campus with people who don't look like me or have the same lived experiences. It definitely has gotten me out of my comfort zone and has contributed to my success as an academic."