A special set-apart place no longer? The rhetoric of modern nonprofit organizations



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This dissertation is about the tension produced by competing value orientations in the nonprofit and voluntary sector (NVPS). Historically, American nonprofit organizations (NPOs) were imbued with an ideological privilege rooted in the utopian, religious beginnings of the sector and premised on existence of the NPVS as a “special set-apart place,” an arena of human action uncontaminated by both government and the market. Today, major financial, institutional, and cultural forces exert tremendous pressure on NPOs and, as a result, these groups have been thrust into a more competitive social system. How might nonprofits cope with these new challenges? In a review of the NPVS literature, I identify two suggestions commonly advocated by researchers and practitioners: (1) That NPOs remain true to the traditional, societal value orientation, or that (2) NPOs adopt a more market-oriented approach. The values and related assumptions of these orientations are detailed and this conceptual model is applied to the newsletters of twenty-one diverse nonprofit organizations. In what follows, I describe the clash of societal values and market values, explain the effects of the struggle between these combatants on contemporary NPOs, and demonstrate that this battle left rhetorical scars now evident in how nonprofits discuss four common organizational concerns—identity, trust, hierarchy, and mission. My overall finding is that nonprofit organizations have lost their presumptive ideological privilege as a result of the constant strain between societal and market values. In examining the implications of this thesis, I hold that the halcyon days of NPOs are not forever gone and, to that end, five communication strategies for modern nonprofit and voluntary organizations are offered.