Panel Paper: The Influence of Organizational Characteristics, Environmental Factors and Changes On Nonprofit Missions

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 2:05 PM
Hall of Fame (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

David Berlan, Syracuse University

Managing nonprofit change is a complicated process.  Funders frequently change focal areas and decision-making criteria.  The broader operating environment for individual nonprofits can shift substantially in response to demographic and policy changes.  Shifts in structure or leadership alter both internal and external relationship while introducing new ideas about future directions.  In response to these organizational and environmental changes, discussions occur on reinterpreting or even altering the mission pursued; even more frequently, strategies to pursue these missions change.  To manage nonprofits during periods of such uncertainty, it is necessary to understand the interplay between these various changes, particularly how they relate to the fundamental idea around which nonprofits organize and are evaluated: mission.

Prior research on nonprofit mission change either lacks sufficient nuance by considering tensions only to exist between funding and mission fidelity, draws from a relatively limited set of organizations, fails to consider multiple theoretical lenses, and/or examines only a brief period of time.  This paper considers both the possibility of nuance in mission change and a range of alternative theories.  Through examination of a large sample of complex, cross-national nonprofits over a longer period of time, it provides additional observations and potential variation.

The proposed paper seeks to identify factors correlated with shifts in nonprofit mission.  Through logistic regression of panel data covering 152 nonprofits over a period of 12 years, environmental and organizational characteristics and changes will be examined for correlation with subsequent mission changes.  Drawn from form 990 data and a series of leader interviews, the model includes explanatory variables suggested by a range of organizational theories, including institutionalization, resource dependence, network theory and prior nonprofit scholarship.  These variables include funding growth, share of funding from government, centrality of volunteers, politically connected board members, new leaders, organizational renaming, headquarters relocation, sub-sector and presence of founder on board.  The dependent variable, mission change, is hand-coded from a common source of mission statement content, the summary of an organization’s purpose in this annual IRS filing.

Logistic regression will be used to explore this panel data and test the model, seeking to identify factors correlated with mission change.  Absent a sufficient pre-existing body of relevant theory, causality cannot be strongly inferred from these results.  Nonetheless, this paper is expected to identify organizational characteristics, types of changes and environmental factors that tend to be associated with higher rates of nonprofit mission change.  This exploratory analysis, even absent strong evidence for causality, can inform practice by identifying conditions under which concern about fidelity to mission or the option to proactively address the possibilities of reinterpreting or changing mission might arise.  These findings will also serve as a launching point for future research on the dynamics of nonprofit organizational, environmental and mission change.

Full Paper: