Faculty PI: Woody Powell, Professor of Education, School of Education; Faculty Co-director, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society; Professor of Organizational Behavior (by courtesy), Stanford Graduate School of Business; Professor of Sociology and Communication (by courtesy), School of Humanities and Sciences; Professor of Management Science and Engineering (by courtesy), School of Engineering
The research team includes graduate students Christof Brandtner and Aaron Horvath.
Christof Brandtner is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Stanford. He is actively involved with the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he was a Ph.D. fellow in 2013-14. Christof studies processes of economic rationalization in the public and nonprofit sector, and how the expansion of civil society organizations affects society and the economy. His dissertation project investigates the social construction of cities as rationalized, organizational actors. He uses quantiative methods to analyze organizational behavior and discourse, but also likes the liveliness of qualitative research. Christof was trained in a European business school as well as a U.S. sociology department, and enjoys thinking across the borders of countries, sectors, and disciplines.
Aaron Horvath is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and a PACS PhD fellow for 2015-16. He is interested in how organizational and economic shifts shape the way citizens engage with and attempt to shape society. In particular, his research explores the transformation of organizational structures in American life and its implications for collective civic engagement, contentious politics, public agendas, and the practice of democracy.
The SPEN 2 project builds directly on the Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector (SPEN) in the SF Bay Area, conducted from 2002 to 2007 by a team of Stanford researchers at the Graduate School of Business, under the leadership of Professor Powell. SPEN examined the burgeoning role of professionally trained executives in Bay Area nonprofit organizations. Researchers analyzed the spread and impact of managerial ideas on the administration and operation of a large random sample of local organizations. They interviewed more than 200 executive directors of nonprofits from across the 10 county region, ranging from small activist organizations, soccer clubs and soup kitchens to large social service organizations, private universities, housing authorities, and major art museums. Researchers assessed how practices commonly associated with the business sector, such as strategic planning, financial accounting, quantitative performance measurement, and annual audits, were being utilized in the social sector.
The current project, SPEN 2, looks at these organizations ten years later. Current data sources are much more diverse, including tax records, webpages, and mission statements, as well both online and in person interviews with executive directors. The project assesses how these organizations are performing a decade later. The early results are intriguing: slightly more than 170 of the organizations are still operating. About half of the executive directors are still in their positions. But behind the stability is a great deal of change and churning. Some of the organizations have moved out of the Bay Area, a handful have merged, and several have been integrated into national federated organizations. Others have re-located within the community, and some have changed their name as well as their operations.
Professor Powell and his research team seek to understand whether the adoption of practices from the business sector have had a positive impact on the health of these organizations. The manner in which nonprofits go about their work has a big effect on what they do in terms of service delivery and program orientation. The simple idea is frequently talked about, but supported with little systematic empirical evidence. For example, Burton Weisbrod of Northwestern University has argued in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that the commercialization of nonprofits often leads to undesirable mission drift. His claim is in line with the argument that practices can override organizational goals, this is, as managerial practices change, an organization’s mission may be altered as well. But we have little systematic evidence about this; hence the project’s goal to explore these ideas. The researchers also hope to examine how strategic planning and social impact measurement influence how organizations pursue social change. Do such efforts enable organizations to accomplish laudable goals, or do attempts at measurement render the organizations more conservative and bureaucratic? The researchers are also interested in the question of commensuration. As various measures of impact proliferate, which ones prove useful? Impact measures presuppose that is possible to compare the performance of a widely heterogeneous set of organizations, ranging from advocacy organization for environmental justice to a soup kitchen to an art museum. We are finding that many organizations are actively “managing magic,” a phrase Christof Brandtner has coined to describe those nonprofits that both cultivate their missions and actively engage in all manners of new business practices.
SPEN 2 is building a data set that provides a longitudinal assessment of a random sample of viable organizations over the course of more than a decade. Having financial and tax data on an annual basis, as well as interview responses at two points in time is unparalleled in the literature. SPEN 2 is finding that practices that were uncommon 10 years ago are much more ubiquitous today, including online giving and job postings through LinkedIn. Dealing with nonprofit rating services has become commonplace. The next steps of the project include linguistic analyses of webpage content, evaluation of survey responses, and analysis of social media practices.