Big Questions for Nonprofit Studies

Having reached critical mass in North Carolina, a group of North Carolina nonprofit scholars (along with a few colleagues from Georgia) recently met in Bald Head Island, North Carolina to discuss our individual research projects and to explore ways to collaborate to improve not only our research, but to strengthen our impact on the nonprofit sector across our state. Given our somewhat disparate research agendas we undertook a “Q-storming” exercise to lay out some of the big, unanswered questions of nonprofit studies to help us orient our future collective endeavors. Realizing that our list questions was too large for our nascent group to tackle, we report the results of our discussion here and extend an invitation for you to join us not only in a discussion about what we should be researching but also trying to answer some of these questions.

We acknowledge up front that many areas of nonprofit research did not bubble up to our list of big questions. Upon reflection, the absence of questions relating directly to the functioning or effectiveness of a board of directors is a most glaring omission. This is not to suggest such omitted topics are not important. Rather, we were discussing questions and areas of research that 1) can push the field forward rather than focusing on what we are studying now and 2) identify larger themes that can help unify the somewhat disparate nonprofit research enterprise. To this end we see board governance as something that might easily be included in one or more of the following categories of questions (e.g., management).

We identified four domains of big questions that we think can move nonprofit research forward. Rather than offer a succinct definition of each category, we give a few key words here and then specify below the questions that we think are most closely associated with each category. In short, at this point we are allowing the categories to be somewhat defined by the types of questions that have, are, and may be raised. As questions concentrate around these themes, we anticipate that their boundaries will become less malleable.

Boundaries (sector, collaborations, societal, organizational, intra-organizational, identity, value); Cycles (organization life cycles, economic cycle, sector cycles); Engagement (philanthropy, volunteering, employment, membership); Management (effectiveness, leadership, performance). We explore these domains and suggest some big questions below and the various levels (macro, meso, and micro) at which these questions may be meaningful. This tiered approach is key to being able to succinctly identify a few categories into which “big questions” may intuitively belong. Within each category we draw some direction from Ostrom's (2005, 59) Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework to entertain the reality that researchers and practitioners are interested in multiple levels of analysis. Micro levels of analysis focus on “operational situations” where nonprofits pursue activities of provision, production, distribution, appropriation, assignment, and consumption. Meso levels of analysis focus on “collective-choice situations” and concern nonprofits' roles in determining how operational action situations are structured. These meso levels of action are shaped, in turn, by macro level dynamics. These macro levels focus on “constitutional rules-in-use” which concern the broader societal rules by which collective-choice situations are structured. Unlike micro levels of analysis, meso and macro levels are marked by the activities of prescribing, invoking, monitoring, applying, and enforcing.


  • Does the nonprofit sector needs it own theories and concepts or can it use generic theories and idea from the social sciences? Are unique theories required?
  • How does technology redefine our ideas of networks?
  • Why should nonprofits have tax-exempt status? Questions about delegitimization
  • Under what conditions are nonprofit organizations fitting within the various theories of the nonprofit sector?
  • Is all collaboration good? What is the value of sector pluralism?
  • Blurring of the sectors? Hybrid organizations? What is the meaning of and value of sector?
  • Growth of cross-sector organizations? How does this influence the “pure” sectors?
  • How do we hold nonprofits accountable? To whom are they accountable?
  • What role should nonprofits play in meeting local needs?
  • How do nonprofits in the southeast relate with other nonprofits throughout the country and in the world? Federations, etc.


  • What is the impact of the economic cycle on development of nonprofit sector?
  • When do we achieve caring capacity (or carrying capacity)? Is there a natural selection of nonprofits? When do we max out on nonprofits?
  • What drives organizational transformation in nonprofits?
  • How do you create nonprofits in areas with no resources? Are they invisible? How do we resource organizations that lack capacity? What are the capacity and confidence problem from the funders point of view? How do we build capacity of and confidence in these organizations (small ones)?
  • To what extent and under what circumstances are nonprofits able to adapt well to their environments? When do they do it poorly?
  • How do networks and collaborations form?
  • What new forms are developing that are just now being testing? Corporation B form, social entrepreneurship, L3Cs, Forms of organization and legitimacy? Can we recognize an organization's struggle for legitimacy?
  • What do relationships among nonprofits look like? Relationships with other organizations? (sharing information and resources) What should these relationships look like? When do they add value? (collaboration, competition, ignore)
  • How do crisis moments shape nonprofits?


  • How do we engage individuals? How do we get them to give, volunteer, and join?
  • What about person-centered giving/charismatic giving?
  • Do we need a masters in nonprofit management? What is unique in their training? What are the implications of the growth in undergraduate programs?
  • Who works in the nonprofit sector? Why? Who remains in the nonprofit sector?
  • How does technology impact the nonprofit sector? (online donations) another potential source of interlock What are new methods of engagement?
  • How does philanthropy and characteristics of the nonprofit sector look different from other areas of the country? Why? What impact does that have?
  • What is the role of social networking sites and nonprofits?


  • Is there a management deficit in nonprofits? Is there a leadership deficit? What is the difference?
  • What is the role of unions in nonprofits?
  • What is the capacity divide between organizations? Are we leaving some behind?
  • How do human resources in the nonprofit sector affect capacity, collaborations, and effectiveness?
  • What happens in the labor process in nonprofit organizations? Are there special coordination problems? To what extent are volunteer resist to being controlled? Is there alienation?
  • Are nonprofits effective? Under what circumstances are they effective? How do we measure effectiveness? How do we link community needs with the organizational mission? What are the environmental factors impacting perceptions of effectiveness?
  • What is the cost of collaboration? What are the pressures to collaborate?
  • How do you hold each other accountable in collaborations?
  • How do we understand the needs of a local community and the landscape of nonprofits? How can a local organization speak to regional problems? Duplication of services
  • How are nonprofits sharing resources? How should they?
  • What are the consequences of sharing board members?
  • What should relationships among nonprofit look like?