Our nation increasingly leans on the nonprofit sector to provide basic services, with over 1.5 million organizations employing over 10% of the private workforce. This sector occupies a straddling institutional position across public and private spheres – arising mainly from private donations and labor, but publicly subsidized by tax exemptions and contracted by the government to deliver many crucial social services – and yet the dynamics and impact of these public-private interactions are poorly understood. My research makes novel contributions in this domain with an in-depth examination of how public and private interests influence nonprofit employee experiences and organizational design, as well as the shape of social movements and industries that attempt to serve marginalized and vulnerable populations. I advance this research agenda through two complementary contexts of inquiry: 1) the dynamics and consequences of private foundations, and 2) career paths in, out, and around the nonprofit sector

The context and impact of private foundations


This line of inquiry explicitly examine how private considerations influence the creation, translation, and maintenance of organizations and fields. This stream of research primarily analyzes the context and impact of private foundations, where the interplay between public and private interests is particularly salient. I have studied these questions across multiple contexts, analyzing the dynamics of family foundations, the growth and diffusion of charter management organizations (CMOs), the rise of nonprofit performance metrics, and network patterns of transnational grantmaking.

Oelberger, Carrie R. (Forthcoming). “Cui bono? Private Goals in the Design of Public Organizations.Administration and Society.

“Cui Bono?” uses rich comparative field data from 25 private foundations to develop a framework that enables dynamic analysis of how public and private goal orientations differentially inform dimensions of organizational design, identifying the crucial mediating role of diachronic participation by organizational members. I illuminate this framework with a typology of four ideal-type organizations, which vary in their attention to public and private goals: Philanthropy, Legacy, Family, and Minimalist. This framework provides a comprehensive and robust model by which scholars and practitioners can examine nonprofit organizational design with attention to the complex interactions between public and private goals and provides tools to study organizations’ evolution through varied functions and forms over time. The paper addresses several interrelated omissions of current conceptual tools used to study nonprofits by challenging often dominant scholarly assumptions that nonprofit organizations are driven solely (or even primarily) by philanthropic or publicly oriented objectives and detailing the mechanisms by which “charitable” institutions are designed to serve private interests.

Quinn, Rand, Carrie R. Oelberger, and Debra E. Meyerson. (2016). “Getting to scale: Ideas, resources, and the diffusion of the Charter Management Organization.Teachers College Record. 118 (9)

“Getting to scale” identifies how private interests can co-opt and channel social movements to serve private goals. Along with my co-authors, we develop a new theoretical mechanism for this process, detailing with rich qualitative data how private philanthropists seized the organizational form of the charter school, decoupled it from its original ideas about local control, and therefore made it available to serve a different (and in this instance, contradictory) set of ideas around “getting to scale” and “tipping the system.”

Powell, Walter W., Achim Oberg, Valeska Korff, Carrie R. Oelberger, and Karina Kloos. (Forthcoming). “Institutional analysis in a digital era: Mechanisms and methods to understand emerging fields.” In New Themes in Institutional Analysis: Topics and Issues from European Research, C. Mazzo, R. Meyer, G. Krücken, and P. Walgenbach (editors), Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

“Institutional analysis in a digital era” analyzes similar mechanisms for institutional change, but with a different empirical setting and research design. This paper examines the conversation on nonprofit organizational effectiveness and efficiency through a coded analysis of the website discourse and network hyperlinks of the 369 most active entities. A colossal empirical effort, our team use this empirical phenomenon to advance a theoretical argument about processes of organizational change and field transformation. Whereas mechanisms of early institutionalism have been widely used to examine field convergence around existing sets of shared values and practices, the three mechanisms of proto-institutionalization that we identify instead provide lenses to analyze how entities catalyze new institutional arrangements. Proselytizing of information and championing alternative visions detaches ideas and practices from their original bailiwick and makes them generally accessible. Convening creates spaces for exchange among dissimilar participants and provide room for negotiation on how to re-assemble disparate ideas into novel or semi-coherent bundles. Strengthening funds, supports, and encourages the attraction of new converts, the implementation of particular bundles among recipient organizations, and the adoption of new practices. Taken together, we find that these activities engage formerly distant organizations and entities — not only foundations, but also intermediaries, movements, and blogs—in the new agenda of social impact. As websites and online activities become ever more relevant both for organizational behavior and research, we offer a perspective that attends—both conceptually and methodologically—to the digital landscape in which much contemporary organizational action is taking place.

Oelberger, Carrie R. and Jesse Lecy. “Institutional Learning? Organizational Exploration, Partner Selection, and the Structuring of Transnational Networks.” (Working Paper)

“Institutional Learning?” is a working paper, currently in the data analysis stage, that analyzes how the choices of private foundations structure the transnational field of NGOs. The paper advances a novel conceptual contribution to organizational theory, where previous literature has examined organizational learning with a simplistic dichotomous framework: organizational exploitation describes situations in which organizations continue existing relationships, decreasing uncertainty and knowledge, while organizational exploration describes situations in which organization seek new partners, increasing uncertainty and risk, but also potentially introducing new information and increasing learning. I develop a more robust theory of partner selection that conceptually and methodologically differentiates within organizational exploration using tools of network analysis, where field exploitation involvesselecting an NGO that is new to the foundation, but which has previously received funding from another private foundation in the U.S. (“the field”), while field exploration involvesselecting a new NGO that has never received funding from another “field” foundation. This method enables empirical analysis of the extent to which foundations are creating “bridging” versus “bonding” social capital. As public affairs scholars, these differences matter, not only to foundation and NGO involved, but also to the broader fields within which they are embedded. Critical philanthropy is calling for private foundations, with their financial security and privileged position, to embrace this risk in service of broadening the civil society players at the table. I am in the processes of testing this theory using a novel, longitudinal dataset of all grants given to support international work by U.S.-based private foundations between 2000 and 2012 and have invited a co-author with network analysis expertise to assist in this effort. We aim to submit the paper to a top management journal in 2017.

Career paths in, out, and around the nonprofit sector


As an institutional scholar, themajority of my published work thus far has focused on the macro-level dynamics of public-private tensions. However, my ethnographic data collection has pushed me to explore the micro-level processes that contribute to institutional creation, disruption, and maintenance, with attention to the public-private dimensions of career paths in, out, and around the nonprofit sector. I analyze dynamics of how professionalization, the search for meaning and identity, and work-life conflict influence peoples’ experiences in (and out of) work, organizational design, and institutional norms.

This stream of research primarily analyzes the context of international development and humanitarian relief work, where interactions between private and public spheres are especially salient due to a high degree of temporary work assignments and frequent travel that requires people to live their personal and professional lives within the same physical spaces. My research is among the first to empirically examine questions of work-life interface within the nonprofit sector, which I do with an original, longitudinal dataset of aid workers that contains in-depth interviews, ethnographic field study, and longitudinal survey data. I have four working papers from this dataset. In addition to these scholarly articles, I was invited to write an Op-Ed on professionalization and a book chapter on Human Resource management in INGOs.

Professionalization, Work Values, and Job Satisfaction
Given the importance, growth, and professionalization of the nonprofit sector, we know shockingly little about how people are motivated, beyond existing scales from “public service motivation” which focus more narrowly on examining various roots of the desire to serve others (Perry and Wise 1990). To address this gap, I have developed a new survey scale with sound, validated psychometric properties to study the motivational work values of nonprofit employees. “Beyond Assumptions of Altruism: Job Satisfaction in an Age of Nonprofit Professionalization” then uses polynomial regression models and response surface methodology to test which work values, when fulfilled, most strongly predict nonprofit job satisfaction. I find that the strongest predictors are not in the arenas generally examined by scales of public service motivation. Specifically, the extent to which an organization fulfilled public/social service objectives did not significantly increase job satisfaction, even when respondents noted the valued public/social service in their work. Instead, the fulfillment of more personally (rather than publicly) beneficial values, such as work environment and cognitive engagement, were found to be more likely to lead to satisfaction. These papers provide scholars with a more expansive scale to measure motivation and values and demonstrate the necessity to use it moving forward. This instrument and findings will also be of interest to managers seeking to better understand the motivating values of their workforce.

Meaning and Work-Life Conflict
Understanding how nonprofit employees are motivated is the first step in broadening our understanding of how they move through and across organizations over time. The nonprofit workforce is investing in advanced degrees and, consequently, making career-length commitments. This empirical reality requires a deeper understanding of workers’ experience of work-life conflict (ie. the negative impact of work on non-work life) and how that influences their career paths over their life course. I address this research gap with two qualitative papers that I intend to submit to top sociology or management journals.

Competing for Meaning: Work-Life Conflict in Deeply Meaningful Work” uses rich ethnographic and interview data on aid workers to tease apart the roots of work-life conflict. I identify a theoretical mechanism underlying the work-life conflict experienced by those engaged in deeply meaningful work, arguing that meaningful work and meaningful personal relationships necessitate the same two features: the physical body and the emotional heart. Furthermore, I identify that meaningfulness increases with respect to these features along two dimensions: existence and flow.

There’s More to Life than (Meaningful) Work: How the Pursuit of Meaning in One’s Personal Life Informs Career Management Strategies” analyzes longitudinal interview, survey, and career path data to develop a process model and map career management strategies of aid workers. First, I argue that people navigate the uncertainty of choice points through a process of meaning prediction, guided by perceptions of available options. I detail two dimensions of this “possibility space” — the perceived breadth and depth of options, and the perceived temporal stability of options. Second, I identify four strategies of career work that people utilize to navigate in, around, and out of their organization, occupation, and industry — accommodation, adaptation, abandonment, and prioritization. Together, these findings highlight the interactions between domains in which people seek a meaningful life, develop the mechanism of meaning prediction to explain how people navigate uncertainty, specify conditions under which a person may opt in, around, or out of meaningful work over time, and clarify how people experience conflict between what is good for themselves, their work, and society at large.