Being Business-Like While Pursuing a Social Mission: Acknowledging the Inherent Tensions in US Nonprofit Organizing

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Nonprofit organizations face an increasing expectation to be more business-like. Although scholars have theoretically explored this phenomenon and studied its influence in various contexts, there has been little empirical examination of the ways in which nonprofit practitioners themselves describe and make sense of their organizations and their work as business-like. Specifically, scholars have not explored the ways in which nonprofit practitioners communicatively reconcile the inherent tensions between being business-like and the pursuit of a social mission. Based on findings from an eight-month ethnographic field study of a US nonprofit organization, this article describes the sophisticated ways in which nonprofit practitioners understand, define and negotiate the need to be business-like within the nonprofit context and the central role of communication in that process. Additionally, critical assessment of these findings reveals the political qualities of talking about nonprofit organizing as being business-like, leading to potential transformative redefinitions of the business-like imperative that acknowledge rather than suppress conflicts inherent in the practice of nonprofit organizing.