Decoupling Revisited: Common Pressures, Divergent Strategies in the U.S. Nonprofit Sector

As the members of an organizational field adopt similar practices, considerable variation in enactment can ensue. Field-level theories, however, do not yet explain how and why organizations vary in their use of standard practices. To tackle this issue, we focus on the infiltration of managerial practices into a sector traditionally motivated by norms of charity, using data drawn from a random sample of 200 nonprofit organizations. We first carry out an inductive content analysis of interviews with executive directors (EDs) about their use of strategic planning, which reveals three main rationales for adoption— associational, managerial, and opportunistic—and two outcomes—symbolic adoption and symbolic implementation. We then use Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to consider which combinations of organizational attributes and rationales are associated with the outcomes of decoupling or routinization. Our study shows creative yet patterned possibilities in the uses of a standard practice, with both adoption and implementation taking on symbolic meaning. The findings afford a deeper understanding of how multiple forms of decoupling can be used to understand micro-processes of variation, extending research on divergent outcomes of field-wide isomorphic pressures.