Behind the scenes of “Nonprofit Organizations Becoming Business-Like”


Florentine Maier, Michael Meyer and Martin Steinbereithner, Vienna University of Economics and Business and NVSQ authors.

Our systematic literature review on Nonprofit Organizations Becoming Business-Like is an extremely dense piece of writing. We condensed the essence of 599 research publications into 8000 words. Under no circumstances can we distill it any further into a 600 word blogpost! What we want to do here, instead, is tell about the reasons why we wrote it, and provide some guidance on how to read it.

The article was inspired by the adage “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade”: for over two years we had been trying to get research funding to conduct empirical research on the consequences of business-like forms of nonprofit organizing, as opposed to possible alternative forms. After three unsuccessful grant applications, each faltering because reviewers criticized us for not having covered the state of research sufficiently, we came to the conclusion that there apparently was no consensus on what actually constituted the relevant field of research. We had extensively read on the issue of NPOs becoming business-like, books piling up on our desks, folders bursting with printouts, our EndNote file getting bigger and bigger, and still reviewers pointing out this or that article that they considered as crucial and that we had failed to cite in our grant applications.

This was also the time when the editors of NVSQ remarked at the annual ARNOVA meeting that they saw a need for more systematic literature reviews in the field of nonprofit sector research. Putting two and two together we decided to conduct a review that would persuade any grant reviewer that we were thoroughly familiar with the state of research on NPOs becoming business-like.

This turned out to be quite a mammoth project. Although we had amassed a lot of literature on the subject, it took us a year to systematically trawl through all potential databases and reference lists again, document everything, classify the findings of previous research according to a unifying scheme, and assess all findings with regards to their theoretical and empirical foundations. As behooves a good reviewer, the reviewers of NVSQ also challenged us to make our approach even more rigorous, by conducting a second round of identifying search terms.

Before embarking on this endeavor, we had also considered taking a quantitative approach, using a software for bibliometric analysis. This would surely have saved us a lot of time. However, it would have resulted in a – we daresay – much more shallow kind of findings, basically only identifying groups of articles that used the same groups of words. We instead developed our mapping of the research field by actually reading everything, inductively generating a system of codes to classify all kinds of theoretical approaches, whether the studies contained empirical evidence to support their arguments, and if so, based on which kind of empirical research methods. Most importantly, an automated bibliometric approach would not have been able to consider the more or less subtle differences of quality between publications: Were they clearly written? Did they build comprehensively on previous research? Were the methods well documented? Did they deliver path breaking new insights, or add substantial proof to previous conceptual or qualitative work?

We graded each of the 599 articles with regards to their quality, differentiating between “I regret reading that”, “okay” and “great”. Luckily for us, we did not have to regret much, and there were a lot of great articles. In fact, a lot more than we could cite in the review. We took many rounds to prune our reference list, leaving in only what we perceived to be representative of the best in their particular research niche. We made the last cuts to the reference list almost with tears in our eyes, as we had to eliminate a few fantastic articles in order to meet the word limit.

We therefore wholeheartedly invite you to actually read our article, and not only this article but also all the articles that we referenced.

Featured article: Maier, F., Meyer, M. & Steinbereithner, M. (2014) Nonprofit Organizations Becoming Business-Like: A Systematic Review. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45 (1), 64-86.


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