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Similarity makes a difference

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By Jeffrey Leiter

In the debate over the growth in the number of nonprofits and the focus on accountability, one question that crops up is whether nonprofit organizations should become more alike?

If so, what would it mean for the future of nonprofits?

It could mean that best practices had been discovered and were spreading widely among nonprofits. Such a trend would give us hope of movement toward more effective and efficient nonprofit organizations.

However, we would also likely agree that such progress is far from reality. Rather than a diffusing consensus about best practices, often nonprofits find disagreement and confusion about them.

Even without agreement on best practices, nonprofits may experience pressures to conform.

Some pressure may come from government or powerful funders and clients. Other suggestions may come from experts, such as consultants and university professors, speaking with the authority of their professional status.

The sum of these pressures is a consensus on what a legitimate nonprofit looks like that nonprofits generally accept without question and rarely violate for fear of being cut off by funders or shunned by powerful clients.

A model held up to and even imposed on legitimacy-seeking nonprofits is the corporate organization.

Despite the vaunted efficiency, rationality and control capability of this model, nonprofits should not forget the costs bureaucratic organizations can impose on creativity, innovation, and responsiveness.

Nonprofits may benefit by efforts to become more “business-like,” but wholesale conformity to this model in the quest for legitimacy could also lead them to abandon many of the values that have legitimated nonprofits in the first place.

Nonprofits in democratic societies are important in part because democratically-elected governments respond primarily to majority needs and preferences.

Many minority needs are inadequately addressed by government.  Because these minority needs are diverse, the nonprofits that arise to address them need to be diverse.

Nonprofits that match environmental requirements today may be poorly matched to the altered requirements for the next era.

Indeed, nonprofits that fit today’s environment poorly may better fit tomorrow’s.

Because nonprofits, like most organizations, are not very adaptable, nonprofit survival in the face of challenging environmental shifts may depend on present-day variety.

The pressure for conformity in the nonprofit sector is without doubt very hard to resist, but the reasons to preserve variety are fundamental to the purpose and survival of the sector.


Jeffrey Leiter is a professor of sociology at N.C. State University and research director of its Institute for Nonprofits.

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