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Title: Strategizing for Social Good: How Consulting Shapes the Nonprofit Sector
Authors: Reisman, Leah Margareta Gazzo
Advisors: DiMaggio, Paul J
Zelizer, Viviana A
Contributors: Sociology Department
Keywords: Consulting
Subjects: Organization theory
Issue Date: 2020
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: The use of consultants is widespread in the nonprofit sector. In institutional sociology, consultants are considered agents of institutional diffusion and normative isomorphism--carriers of management ideas and fads into new settings and drivers of inter-organizational homogeneity (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Sahlin-Andersson and Engwall 2002). Correspondingly, in the nonprofit sector consultants are thought to contribute to rationalization (Hwang and Powell 2009) and the growing similarity of organizations across sectors (Meyer and Bromley 2013). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in three consulting firms and 180 interviews with consultants, clients, and funders, I paint a more complex picture of consultants’ role in nonprofit rationalization and the spread of practices. Rather than driving homogeneity across nonprofits, consultants to nonprofits produced variation in the organizational structures and management strategies they recommended to clients, reproducing the heterogeneity of the contemporary nonprofit sector. As professionals with nonprofit backgrounds working in for-profit firms, via their practices consultants strove to enact genuinely supportive relationships with their nonprofit clients. They concurrently mirrored nonprofit practices in their own firms, at times undermining firms’ bottom lines. By analyzing how consultants conducted research about their nonprofit clients, facilitated meetings about findings and options, and managed their own businesses, I show that while consultants pushed nonprofits to be focused and intentional about linking activities and desired outcomes, these general recommendations did not contribute to inter-organizational homogeneity. Consultants customized standard frameworks and blended consultant-generated data with clients’ perceptions, introducing variation into the management strategies consultants recommended. Consultants also defined unique peer groups for each client, guiding clients to distinct options depending on their particular peers. Simultaneously, while consultants produced variation in nonprofit practice, the hierarchical structure of the consulting field led consultants to reproduce broader inter-organizational hierarchies within which consultants’ work was situated. These findings suggest that rationalization in the nonprofit sector is more heterogeneous than existing accounts suggest, helping explain scholars’ observations that despite widespread rationalization, the nonprofit sector remains decentralized and varied (Bromley, Hwang and Powell 2012). More broadly, the case of consultants to nonprofits provides new insight into consultants’ role in institutional diffusion, helping explain why complete and rapid diffusion only rarely occurs.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Sociology

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