PACS Blog / March 30, 2021

Nonprofits Need To Balance Professionalization And Formalization With Trust And Community Building

Stanford professor Patricia Bromley discusses the role her Stanford PACS fellowship has played in her academic career, the importance of female scholarship, and the changing nature of nonprofit organizations. She explains how the pandemic exacerbated existing nonprofit sector trends, such as increasing civil society restrictions and declining nonprofit formation rates as formal organizations shift towards more grassroots and temporary types of organizing.

Patricia Bromley, personal archive

Patricia Bromley is an Associate Professor of Education and, by courtesy, of Sociology at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Stanford University. Her work spans a range of fields, including comparative education, organization theory, the sociology of education, and public administration and policy. At the GSE, Bromley teaches courses related to nonprofits and global education in the International and Comparative Education Program.

Bromley’s work focuses on the rise and globalization of a culture emphasizing rational, scientific thinking and expansive forms of rights. Empirically, much of her research focuses on two settings – education systems and organizations. Her recent publications examine the rise of emphases on human and minority rights, environmentalism, and diversity in textbooks from countries around the world and the global expansion of formal organization worldwide, in numbers and internal complexity. 

Professor Bromley and I spoke via Zoom, and our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You joined the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society as a fellow in 2006 and have remained closely affiliated. Would you share how that early engagement influenced your career and you personally, as a female scholar competing for the most prestigious positions in academia? 

It is fun for me to think back to 2006 when the Center was just getting going, and I was in this first class of fellows. The fellowship was seminal in my career because it provided extra time to study civil society and philanthropy, and a supportive community of interdisciplinary scholars looking at the same topic through different lenses. I was able to develop ideas that later became my first publications, and these provided the foundation for pursuing an academic career. I never planned, to be honest, to be a faculty member specifically at a prestigious place like Stanford – although I generally wanted to teach and research at a university. It is wonderful to be back, but landing somewhere like Stanford is definitely a mix of luck and hard work.

Would you tell us a little bit more about the role of Stanford PACS at that time?

The role of Stanford PACS and the fellowship opportunity was very important for me. In addition to the fellowship, which provided more time for research, PACS provided a place for structured intellectual engagement through seminars that met regularly twice a month. These seminars brought together students from all over campus studying civil society. This workshop goes on today and continues to be a vibrant place for doctoral students to advance their ideas. The workshop provided a supportive environment for moving research forward. I began to participate initially when it was getting going, but found it so valuable that I stayed a regular participant for five more years. There’s nothing quite like it that I have been a part of.

Have you ever had to think about yourself as a female scholar instead of a scholar? 

Yes, absolutely. This comes up more and more the further along I get in my career. When I was a graduate student in the Graduate School of Education, the students were mostly women, but the tenured professors were mainly male. That remains the case today. There seems to be a lot more awareness in the last few years about the obstacles that women and people of color face in academia, and there are efforts to address some of this at the institutional level. It is so important to have places like the PACS workshop where under-represented groups are encouraged to be ambitious with their work while also given resources and advice to pursue big goals.

Is it hard to be aware of gender balance in student selection and follow your research interests and the organization’s interests? Do those match often or not? 

At the student level in GSE, it’s not as much of an issue of gender in student selection, our student body and admitted applicants are about 70 percent female.

Where I think about it the most is when it comes to making career choices. I hear students saying they think academia will be too hard or too competitive, and I’m not sure why or how much gender plays a role in that thinking. Really excellent students sometimes have a hard time seeing that the work they are already doing is enough to qualify them for good positions. They don’t need to be different, it is already enough. Certainly, it also takes a bit of good fortune to find a university hiring in a specialized field at the right time, but I see great female students opting out of the whole process. Academia can be an excellent career as a woman, a mother, and a family because of the autonomy — over your schedule, who you collaborate with, and in the long run whether you focus your efforts on research, teaching, or service to the university or community. There are so many ways to shape a career in academia into what works best for you and for it to evolve.

Back in your PACS fellowship days, would you have imagined that you might someday edit the Nonprofit Sector Handbook with Woody Powell, Stanford PACS codirector?

The first edition of the Handbook had been called the Bible of the nonprofit sector, and it helped, in many ways, to establish the field of nonprofit studies. In 2006, the second edition had just come out, and I was working on trying to absorb it all. So in 2006, I was not thinking about any editorial role; I was just trying to understand the content and learn a lot. By the time I was finishing up as a student in 2011, I was starting to think about what another edition might look like. I wasn’t concretely thinking that I would be involved as an editor, more as an intellectual exercise to reflect on how the field had changed and was changing very fast through the 2000s. So, I was starting to think about it, loosely, five years later.

In the Handbook, you address the changing nature of the nonprofit organization. What does it mean to be a nonprofit “organization” at the beginning of the 21st century?

We can think of formal organizations as having two core features that distinguish them from other kinds of social structures, like a network or a bureaucracy. One core feature is that they are constructed as a bounded entity. So, a social actor in their own right, that exists separate from the individuals who are part of them. The other part is that this entity has its own rights and responsibilities. These rights and responsibilities are attributed to it through the law, so we can think of corporate personhood as a key part. But also through education systems — in management classes, we teach about organizational culture and organizational strategy. Through the media — things like the personification of organizations as having feelings or having intent to do harm or do good.

The core right of an organization can be broadly understood as being able to make rational and strategic decisions, and to pursue its own goals and interests. The core responsibility is to recognize that other organizations and actors also are pursuing their purposes and entitled to do so.

Your work, and your recent book Hyper-Organization, seeks to explain the worldwide expansion of formal organization. How does the trend affect nonprofits?

The main idea of the book and related work build on Weber’s classic observation that social structures reflect underlying cultural principles. I argue that formal organization is a social structure that sits on a cultural foundation of liberal principles. Especially with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, liberal cultural principles globalized, spreading ideas of how best to structure society. In particular, the notion of a three-sector society became valorized as the global ideal, including democratic government, a capitalist economy, and free civil society. When that view became dominant at the global level, related social structures – including formal organization – diffused around the world. So, we get a massive expansion of nonprofits around the world in the 1990s, including places where social life may previously have been structured in other ways, not through formal organizations. So, this globalization of liberal cultural principles matters a lot for the nonprofit sector because we get an increase in numbers of these organizations worldwide, and they become more elaborate and formalized as we construct them as autonomous, rational actors.

Why is it critical to understand that nonprofits are not purely a societal reaction to unfulfilled needs but that there are cultural shifts driving an expansion of organizations and the scope of their activities?

The key thing is that a cultural view explains the puzzle in classic economic theories of why the sector exists; these are rooted in ideas of failures of markets and government. But that doesn’t explain why we would see an expansion of the nonprofit sector in both high and low need countries and democracies and autocracies over the same period. And economic theories are hard pressed to explain why we often see the symbolic adoption of formal structures that are unimplemented or have unknown efficacy. So, a cultural lens gives us an additional explanation for why nonprofits exist and their current formalized nature. This isn’t to say national features don’t matter. There’s great comparative work showing that there are still differences between countries, but we see a longitudinal trend around the world, especially through the 1990s.

What are the consequences of the rise of formal organization as a central feature of civil society?

Formal organizations are institutionalized in society as their own bounded entities, as we discussed. They exist over and above any of the individuals who create them, and they have their own rights and responsibilities, including the expectation that they strategically and systematically pursue their own goals.

To display this status, as constructed social actor, requires a professionalized and rationalized structure. For example, it takes things like formal plans and policies, more written documentation about a mission statement or vision statement, or a series of targets and metrics and a logic model to get there. So, this is kind of a professionalized way of operating.

Formal organizations derive their legitimacy from being these rational and purposeful actors. That’s a very different kind of legitimacy than if we think way back historically to a loose community association; that might be more trust-based. Trust is a big issue in the nonprofit sector, it’s thought of as a central principle, but the more we move towards the formal organization as the source of legitimacy of the sector, we move away from trust or belief and towards things like transparency, or accountability, and all of the evaluation and monitoring that goes along with those.

So, I see the loss of trust as a central principle of the sector as a core implication of moving towards more formal organizing. Related, in some cases, this move towards formal organization can create distance from the communities nonprofits might be trying to serve. So, becoming a highly professionalized service organization, for example, you might be unable to reach undocumented immigrants because it feels very distant from lived experiences.

The last implication is that focusing on highly professionalized activities can distract from efficiency and mission if taken too far. Because formalization and professionalization are in part symbolic activities that let an entity display its status as a formal organization, some activities do not contribute directly to a mission. So, nonprofits need to balance these pressures of professionalization and formalization with trust, community building, and civic values.

The third edition of the Nonprofit Handbook was published just before the pandemic. Things have changed in the past year, including awareness of equity and governance – local and community. What are the implications of these changes for grassroots organizations, especially those serving sensitive groups? 

This is a great question about what the arguments suggest for the future. The pandemic has exacerbated an already growing trend of pushback against the dominance of liberal and neoliberal social structures, including democracy, capitalism and civil society. Exactly as you imply, my arguments suggest that this would mean increasing critiques of formal organization as being the path to progress. We see some of that, although it’s early still. For example, there are growing restrictions on nonprofit organizations worldwide, and a few studies now show declining founding rates of formal nonprofit organizations. I would expect that as the liberal cultural base underpinning the formal organizational side of the nonprofit sector gets undercut; we would see a shift towards more grassroots and looser types of organizing. Perhaps there will be more temporary ways of providing good in the world, or networks of individuals rather than formal organizations.

In chapter four of the Handbook, you point out the relationship between formal nonprofit organizations and contemporary liberal culture. Is it likely that nonprofits will decline together with liberalism, the core organizing principle of national and world society?

It sounds dire when you say it that way, but that’s right. But there is an important distinction between nonprofit organizations and civil society.  Counting numbers and types of formal organizations are just a proxy we sometimes use for ‘civil society’ because these structures have become widespread, but they do not indicate how much good there is in a society is or how civil it is. It’s just a way of structuring prosocial activities, and there can be other ways – in the past, we had relatively more informal association, and I’m sure there are future alternatives we can’t imagine yet. The idea that doing good in the world, and civic participation, should be structured as a formal nonprofit organization is a pretty new thing in the history of the world. We’ve come to use it as a quick indicator of the strength of civil society, but civil society is a much broader and deeper concept than the formal nonprofit organizational side of it. I would expect the formal organization side of it to diminish. This is about the kinds of social structures we see. But levels of prosocial activity, altruism, or civil society are something else altogether.

What advice would you share with upcoming scholars considering applying to one of the Stanford PACS fellowships?

I would certainly recommend they read the new edition of the Handbook to help situate their work in the field. That’s a good starting point. Beyond that, the advice I give to my students is that the most important thing is having a passion for a topic. The most important thing is to pursue what is of most interest to you and then look for fellowships and grant opportunities, rather than looking for resources as the starting point. So take your interests and read up, and then connect to faculty who study similar things to develop your ideas further and get feedback on a research design for a fellowship proposal. We all love talking about the research areas that we are most interested in as faculty and find it rewarding to meet students interested in those areas.

Thank you so much for this conversation, Patricia.

Yeah, my pleasure. It’s been wonderful talking.