Sub-theme 20: The Rationalization and Professionalization of the Nonprofit Sector

Walter W. Powell
Stanford University, California, USA
Liesbet Heyse
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Hokyu Hwang
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Call for Papers


The nonprofit sector, traditionally known for its principles of voluntarism and solidarity, occupies an autonomous, yet shifting position between state and market. In recent years, the sector's key external stakeholders – including government and international agencies and major funders and philanthropists – have led the charge for greater transparency and evidence of accomplishment. Growing competitive pressures from for-profit firms for government contracts have also prompted nonprofits to search for ways to improve their operations and to document their contributions. Related moves are underway in fields as diverse as agriculture, timber, coffee, tea, apparel, etc.

In response to these changes, nonprofit, nongovernmental and monitoring organizations have turned to individuals with managerial expertise and credentials, and added administrative skills through professional training. In turn, these organizations have adopted an array of organizational practices purported to improve accountability and efficiency. These changes are reshaping the nature of the nonprofit sector, as mission-driven, expressive, voluntary endeavors give way to more instrumental, rational administration, in which managerial and other professionals colonize organizations formerly staffed by amateurs and volunteers.

The causes and consequences of these processes in such different domains as the arts, social services, humanitarian aid, and environmental affairs have been studied from different social science perspectives and in different countries. The evidence presents a diverse picture with regard to the forms, depth and impact of professionalization, rationalization, and certification. The main motivation for this sub-theme is, therefore, to take stock of our current collective understanding of the changes engulfing the global nonprofit sector and to chart future directions for research. We propose to focus on three broad issues:


  • Causes. What are the causes of the professionalization and rationalization of the nonprofit sector? How has the global movement for certification and rankings shaped the nonprofit domain? Why do powerful stakeholders pressure nonprofits to become more accountable and effective and why now? Which diverse causal factors are at work in different national, regional, and global contexts and in different sub-fields?
  • Variation in responses. To what extent do organizations respond to pressures for accountability, professionalization, and rationalization in a similar way? Certain fields have been professionalized for a long time, while others, albeit knowledge-intensive in nature, lack the legitimacy enjoyed by more established professions. How do these differences mediate the pressures to adopt managerial practices or responses to certification or evaluation efforts? How are administrative and evaluative practices translated into nonprofit settings? What are the mechanisms by which sector-level changes of rationalization, professionalization, certification and commensuration generate organizational variation?
  • Consequences. The implications of the professionalization and rationalization of the nonprofit sector are far-reaching. Have responses to calls for scaling up, demonstrable output measures, and transparency resulted in discernable changes or "improvements" in performance? How do these changes transform the nature of nonprofit work and its workforce, the relationship between service providers and clients, and the nature of outputs? Unintended effects are also likely as practices cross organizational boundaries into unfamiliar domains.

We seek papers that focus on one or more of the three broad issues mentioned above. Contributions can be either empirical accounts of professionalization and rationalization processes in the nonprofit or NGO sector (both qualitative and quantitative) as well as theoretical accounts. Scholars working on similar issues in other sectors such as public higher education institutions or studying mixed markets in which different institutional forms coexist are also welcome, next to studies of certification processes and their effects on organizations. We encourage scholars from diverse disciplinary and theoretical backgrounds and methodological persuasions to participate in this track.


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Walter W. Powell Walter W. Powell (Stanford University, USA) is Professor of Education, Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, Communication and Public Policy at Stanford University in California, USA. He is co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. He has conducted numerous studies of the nonprofit sector, including the arts and social services, and is editor of The Nonprofit Sector (1987; 2006).
Liesbet Heyse Liesbet Heyse (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) is assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and member of the Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology (ICS). She studies organizational change, professionalization and performance in nonprofit and public organizations, with a special focus on humanitarian INGOs. Heyse organized a panel on professionalization for the First World Conference of Humanitarian Studies in 2009.
Hokyu Hwang Hokyu Hwang (University of New South Wales, Australia) is a lecturer in the School of Organisation and Management in the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He has a PhD in Sociology from Stanford University and works on topics such as professionalization, globalization and nonprofits and previously taught at the University Alberta Business School.