Nonprofit and Faith-Based​ Organizations

The first part of my comprehensive exam reading focused on nonprofits and faith-based organizations. I am interested in studying such an organization for my dissertation, so this is helping me to prepare. In my reading I found several similar themes, but for this first post I will focus on two.

Theme 1: We need more communication scholarship

The first thing to note is that a lot of the writing on nonprofits and faith-based organizations comes from outside the communication discipline. This is not surprising, considering the wide array of interest that nonprofits generate among anthropologists, sociologists, and business scholars. However, the lack of a communication perspective means that scholars are overlooking the fundamental role that communication plays in building and sustaining nonprofit practices.

Those who have studied nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in communication have generated some valuable knowledge about the organizational and social interaction approaches to communication in NPOs. Lewis’ (2005) article is the most-cited work among communication scholars. She points out that “organizational communication scholars have not paid significant theoretical attention to nonprofit organizations” (p. 241).

Koschmann (2012) also argues that the approach of developing communicative theories of nonprofits is underdeveloped. He noted that a majority of the scholarship on NPOs is dominated by economic and managerial perspectives. Until recently, scholars focused on applying for-profit strategies to nonprofits, which doesn’t acknowledge the significant differences between those two sectors.

The literature on faith-based organizations comes almost entirely from development studies. They contribute a lot to the discussion, but again they are missing the communication angle. This is where I hope to contribute something new to the discussion.

Theme 2: Definitions are complex

For both nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and faith-based organizations (FBOs), there is a lot of disagreement about how to define them.

Martens (2002) looks at two major approaches to defining NGOs – the juridical approach and the sociological perspective. In juridical studies the emphasis is placed on the legal status of NGOs. In sociological studies they focus more on the composition and functions of NGOs. In both however, there is little agreement on a concrete definition for what constitutes an NGO.

Kirby and Koschmann (2012), on the other hand, noted that most definitions of nonprofits privilege some organizations and not others. For example, if a organization has a less formal structure and isn’t certified legally as an NPO, but they do important work in the community and raise funds for marginalized groups, do they count as an NPO?

The same problem occurs among FBOs. Bielefeld and Cleveland (2013) compiled the literature on faith-based organizations (FBO) looking for key definitions, typologies, and methodological considerations for research on them. However, Bielefeld and Cleveland don’t propose a collective definition.

Clarke (2006) provides a typology of 5 different types of FBOs. He organized it based on the organization’s emphasis on religious or missionary activities, as well as what type of work they do (such as socio-political work, charity, or development).

The only firm definition I found for a FBO comes from McNamee (2011). She defines an FBO as an organization “whose expressed central purpose is to provide products/services which highlight religious/spiritual values, issues, or needs” (p. 424).

Overall, my research shows that NPOs and FBOs are complex and disputed regarding their structure, form, and function. It is clear that more research is needed in this field, especially field-based studies that focus on specific types of organizations and their communication.

If you are interested in the full citations for any of the articles I cite here, please reference my comprehensive exams list 1 page.

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