Sub-theme 43: Mission-driven Organizing: Embedding Social Purpose through People

Janina Klein
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Ashley Metz
Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Amit Nigam
City, University of London, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Mission-driven organizing, like all organizing processes, involves navigating complexity in the form of a multiplicity of potentially inconsistent goals (Cyert & March, 1963) or values (e.g. Gehman et al., 2013). Those who work to achieve a social mission organize to achieve it amid these organizational- and individual-level differences and potential impediments or enablers. Social missions are not always explicitly included in organizational strategies but can be contained in individual values and individual or group efforts. There is no “perfect” way to embed a social mission in organizations and thus, scholars have investigated the many elements involved. In this theme, we will investigate the neglected role of individuals, their occupational roles, and associated values in the embedding (or not) of social purpose.
A diversity of organizations, from for-profit organizations to social enterprises to non-profit and public organizations must balance which goals they pursue, when, and to what extent. Different internal groups can also have different goals (Cyert & March, 1963). Scholars often focus on whether and to what extent embedding a social mission may be compromised due to the need to focus on financial results. For example, non-profit organizations might need to balance their charitable mission with the need to appeal to donors and generate new revenue streams through commercial activities (Ebrahim et al., 2014; Maier et al., 2016). Social enterprises, which combine social and commercial elements (Battilana & Lee, 2014), can differ in the degree to which they focus on social and commercial elements (Shepherd et al., 2019). Likewise, organizations across sectors work to embed a social mission, despite conflicting requirements. For example, public organizations need to balance the goals embedded in their public purpose with the need to deliver public value. They can also navigate multiple and competing public purposes, such as the tension between access to care and the quality of care for individual patients for public healthcare organizations.
While most organizations cope with a multiplicity of opposing demands to some degree (Shepherd et al., 2019), social missions are embedded, or not, in organizations through people. Specifically, all goals, including those that involve social purpose, become real in organizations when employees advocate for and work towards them. For example, even organizations that claim to operate for a social goal may find it easier or more challenging depending on the people and their professional identities (Battilana & Dorado, 2010). To a significant extent, people embed a social mission in organizations when the social goals are a central focus of their jobs. Stinchcombe (1997, p. 17) notes that “the guts of institutions is that somebody somewhere really cares to hold an organization to the standards and is often paid to do that”. While external stakeholders can pressure organizations to pursue certain goals, in most cases, organizational insiders need to prioritize and advocate for a goal in order for it to become or remain a focus. These insiders can prioritize a goal because it is part of their job or occupational mandate. They can also prioritize goals because they form intra-organizational social movements to advance social purpose, unrelated to their jobs, that they prioritize as important.
Ample research suggests that various types of social purpose are occupationally embedded in organizations through people (Cyert & March, 1963). For mission-driven organizing, this insight is evident in sociological research that shows that having people and sub-units in organizations dedicated to diversity is the approach that best leads to diversity in hiring, and in work that explores the roles of sustainability and CSR professionals in advancing sustainability and social responsibility goals within corporations (Kalev et al., 2006; Howard-Grenville, 2006; Bansal, 2003). Professions may come with mission-explicit labels including CSR-related titles or Chief Trust Officers. Researchers have investigated how such professions interact internally, such as through issue selling (Wickert & de Bakker, 2018) or values work (Gehman et al., 2013).
In addition to employees who push for a social purpose as part of their jobs, people embed mission-driven goals in organizations when they advocate goals, unrelated to their jobs, that they prioritize as important. A thread of research shows that employees for example advocate for LGBT inclusiveness because they are affiliated with LGBT social movement or have a LGBT identity. For example, Briscoe and Safford (2010) show that the existence of an LGBT employee group predicted US firms’ adoption of benefits for same-sex partners prior to the legalization of gay marriage. At the level of social interaction, Creed, Scully and Austin (2002) show that LGBT employees both make identity claims and engage in other forms of advocacy in their conversations and interactions with others to advance the cause of LGBT inclusion in organizations. Focusing on sustainability goals, Lounsbury (2001) shows that university recycling programs varied in terms of how they embraced broader environmental and sustainability goals. The broader social purpose was more significantly embraced in universities with strong student advocacy groups focused on environmental issues.
The current literature mostly focusses on organisations’ challenges and opportunities in pursuing multiple goals and what strategies they apply to manage these tensions (Battilana et al., 2017). While recent work has started to explore how those working in organizations manage the tensions they face and how “individuals [can] practice more of their personal convictions at work while still experiencing a sense of shared organizational purpose” (Gümüsay et al., 2020: 2), our understanding of the role of occupational and personal values in delivering goals in mission-driven organizations remains nascent. By focusing on individuals, their occupational roles and associated values, we aim to uncover new insights into how some individuals thrive on the imperfections they face inside mission-driven organizations in terms of multiple, potentially competing goals, while others struggle to do so. In doing so, we seek to address questions such as:

  • How can organizations provide space for the incorporation of competing organizational demands through individuals, their occupational roles and associated values?

  • What is the relationship between different professions and efforts toward mission-driven organizing across organizations in which goals, values, orders of worth and other loci of contestation contradict or enable this work?

  • How do certain occupations potentially enable or hinder social mission accomplishment and what factors influence this?

  • How does institutional context matter for individuals seeking to embed social purpose? How do different national contexts matter here?

  • How can mission-driven organizations manage change and retain the commitment of employees with various backgrounds and values when changing their prioritization of goals and activities?

  • What is the relationship between occupations and the changing nature of their technologies and mission-related outcomes for organizations?

  • What role do organizational, professional, and individual values play in navigating the challenges individuals face in mission-driven organizing?

  • Which professions contradict our current assumptions and surprisingly achieve social purposes?


  • Bansal, P. (2003): “From issues to actions: The importance of individual concerns and organizational values in responding to natural environmental issues.” Organization Science, 14 (5), 510–527.
  • Battilana, J., & Dorado, S. (2010): “Building sustainable hybrid organizations: The case of commercial microfinance organizations.” Academy of Management Journal, 53 (6), 1419–1440.
  • Battilana, J., & Lee, M. (2014): “Advancing Research on Hybrid Organizing – Insights from the Study of Social Enterprises.” Academy of Management Annals, 8 (1), 397–441.
  • Battilana, J., Besharov, M., & Mitzinneck, B. (2017): “On Hybrids and Hybrid Organizing: A Review and Roadmap for Future Research.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T. Lawrence, & R. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 128–162.
  • Briscoe, B., & Safford, S. (2010): “Employee Affinity Groups: Their Evolution from Social Movement Vehicles to Employer Strategies.” Perspectives on Work, 14, 42–45.
  • Creed, W.E.D., Scully, M.A., & Austin, J.R. (2002): “Clothes Make the Person? The Tailoring of Legitimating Accounts and the Social Construction of Identity.” Organization Science, 13 (5), 475–496.
  • Cyert, R.M., & March, J.G. (1963): A Behavioral Theory of the Firm. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
  • Ebrahim, A., Battilana, J., & Mair, J. (2014): “The governance of social enterprises: Mission drift and accountability challenges in hybrid organizations.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 34, 81–100.
  • Gehman, J., Trevino, L., & Garud, R. (2013): “Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices.” Academy of Management Journal, 56 (1), 84–112.
  • Gümüsay, A., Smets, M., & Morris, T. (2020): “God at Work: Engaging Central and Incompatible Institutional Logics through Elastic Hybridity.” Academy of Management Journal, 63 (1), 124–154.
  • Howard-Grenville, J. (2006): “Inside the ‘black box’: How organizational culture and subcultures inform interpretations and actions on environmental issues.” Organization & Environment, 19 (1), 46–73.
  • Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006): “Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies.” American Sociological Review, 71 (4), 589–617.
  • Lounsbury, M. (2001): “Institutional sources of practice variation: Staffing college and university recycling programs.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 46 (1), 29–56.
  • Maier, F., Meyer, M., & Steinbereithner, M. (2016): “Nonprofit Organizations Becoming Business-Like: A Systematic Review.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45 (1), 64–86.
  • Mair, J., Battilana, J., & Cardenas, J. (2012): “Organizing for society: A typology of social entrepreneuring models.” Journal of Business Ethics, 111 (3), 353–373.
  • Shepherd, D., Williams, T. & Zhao, E. (2019): “A Framework for Exploring the Degree of Hybridity in Social Entrepreneurship.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 33 (4), 491–512.
  • Stinchcombe, A.L. (1997): “On the Virtues of the Old Institutionalism.” Annual Review of Sociology, 23 (1), 1–18.
  • Wickert, C., & de Bakker, F. (2018): “Pitching for Social Change: Toward a relational approach to selling and buying social issues.” Academy of Management Discoveries, 4 (1), 50–73.
Janina Klein is an Assistant Professor in the School of Business and Economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She is passionate about understanding how mission-driven organizations can contribute to resolving societal challenges, with a particular focus on the role of values, design and identity during organizational change.
Ashley Metz is an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University, The Netherlands. Her research interests include alternative forms of organizing and technology adoption in the context of complex social challenges, with a particular interest in institutional processes, professions, practices and possible unintended consequences.
Amit Nigam is Professor of Management at Bayes Business School, City, University of London, United Kingdom. He examines the roles of interpretation, communication, and conflict within and across occupations and professions during organizational and institutional change.