Charities, altruism and becoming business-like: Tensions and contradictions

Vicky Lambert, Irvine Lapsley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Purpose. There is a longstanding debate over the role of modern business methods in the contemporary non-profit organisation (NPO) . Critics of business practices assert that they may undermine the missions of NPOs. This paper contributes to this debate. Many accounting researchers have shifted research focus to concepts such as trust and crises. These are important topics. But they may overshadow practices which are taken for granted as accepted practice which does not merit re-examination.
Design/Methodology/Approach. This qualitative project is based on an initial survey followed by comparative case studies of three non-profit organisations.The researchers have used both interviews and documentary analysis in this study.
Findings. The contention that the adoption of business-like practices undermines the fundamental aim of altruism of NPOs is challenged by the findings of this paper. The very concept of altruism is not a single unifying concept in NPOs – it is a contested idea. However, and most importantly, in this research there is no evidence of mission drift by NPOs which adopt business practices. This research highlights the way many NPO CEOs are mission-driven but also pragmatic bricoleurs in their consideration of new business practices. Most importantly, these case studies demonstrate a variation in practices within the participating organisations. This raises challenging questions about a receptive context for the adoption of new business practices which are explored in this paper.
Research limitations/implications. The case studies in this paper are from the UK and further studies in different operating contexts in other countries would be useful. In particular, the finding that the fundamental ethos of NPOs is not challenged by being business-like merits further research. There is also scope for further research on what constitutes a receptive context for the adoption of new business practices by NPOs
Practical implications. This study reveals the potential significance of NPO boards, particularly non-executive directors, in the shaping of organisational practices. There is evidence in this study of NPOs recruiting business experts for purposes of legitimation. But this study also shows how business expertise can be mobilised to enhance NPO performance by bricoleurs in NPO who are highly motivated individuals, who will adopt useful business practices to hand if they improve charity outcomes.
Social implications. The NPO organisations are motivated by the desire to make a difference to the lives of people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. This study has interesting implications for managers and directors of NPOs on their effectiveness.
Orginality/Value. This study challenges the critical view that becoming more business-like undermines the fundamental ethos of altruism in NPOs. This is an important finding, but this study also reveals the recruitment of business expertise by NPOs purely for purposes of legitimation. However, these legitimating practices differ from the well-established view of isomorphism in the field of NPOs and suggests that, on the contrary, there is a variation in practice within the NPO field which has important implications for donors, regulators, directors and managers of NPOs.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalQualitative Research in Accounting & Management
Issue number4
Early online date27 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • non-profit organisations
  • bricolage
  • business-like
  • boards
  • legitimation
  • practice variations


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