Theories of Organizations

In contrast to models designed primarily to understand social movements or interest group politics rather than NGOs, and in contrast to overgeneralizations about the “environmentalism of the poor” and broad-brush, often normative models from civil society theory, our inquiry is guided primarily by theories of organizations (Thompson, 1967; Katz and Kahn, 1978; Miner, 1982; Galaskiewicz and Bielefeld, 1998; Preisendorfer, 2005; Scott and Davis, 2007). Theories like these have the advantage of making the choices that NGOs make about their goals, strategies, and structures the key object of inquiry, not a secondary concern. The utility of this approach has been illustrated in developed countries (Bosso, 2005; Markham, 2008). In this book, we investigate organization theory’s applicability to a quite different context, a developing country.

Open Systems Theory

Open systems theory explains an organization’s goals, structures, and strategies as responses to the social context in which it attempts to survive and realize its goals. The theory emphasizes the following explanatory factors: (1) the cultural milieu in which an organization operates; (2) the preferences and actions of individuals and organizations from which it acquires key resources that it needs to sustain its operations and move toward its goals; (3) the preferences and actions of other organizations with which an organization competes or cooperates; (4) the preferences and actions of government agencies and other organizations that legitimate, regulate, or accredit it; (5) the preferences and actions of an organization’s customers or the individuals and organizations that are the target of its actions; and (6) the preferences and actions of groups that might oppose an organization or some or all of its actions.

Figure 2.1 is a diagrammatic representation of an open systems analysis of an environmental organization in a developing country. The organization derives the inputs of labor, services, materials, and information that it needs to operate from its paid employees, from volunteers, and from other organizations from which it purchases assistance, goods, or services or receives them as donations. It then combines and processes these inputs to produce some combination of outputs. These outputs might include, among others, public education about environmental problems, lobbying government for environmental protection, purchase, or care of nature reserves, environmental protection projects to assist local communities, protests and demonstrations, salaries for its employees, and prestige and influence for its leaders. These outputs affect or are observed by various relevant individuals and organizations in the organization’s social context, including recipients of its services, ruling and dissident

Open systems model of environmental NGO elites, media, government and regulatory bodies, possible opponents, potential financial donors, potential volunteers, and supporters

Figure 2.1 Open systems model of environmental NGO elites, media, government and regulatory bodies, possible opponents, potential financial donors, potential volunteers, and supporters.

Depending on the favorableness of their evaluation of the organization and its activities, the observers and groups affected decide whether to provide the NGO with “generalized media of exchange” (Parsons, 1970), which it can then use to procure the inputs it needs. These may include the following: (1) money, which can come from the sale of products or services produced by the organization, membership dues, personal or corporate donations, funding from aid agencies or other NGOs, and government appropriations, subsidies, or contracts; (2) legitimacy, that is, the perceived right of the organization to exist and pursue its activities, including its legal entitlement to exist; (3) prestige, including especially the organization’s reputation for effectiveness; and (4) influence, the likelihood that individuals and other organizations will respond positively to the organization’s requests, suggestions, or demands. The more of these resources an NGO commands, the more easily it can procure needed inputs, remain in operation, and effectively pursue its objectives.

Whether or not an organization is positively evaluated by the various actors in its environment depends on both the outputs it generates and the preferences of these actors. This often creates dilemmas for environmental NGOs because their social contexts are characterized by disagreement among the individuals and organizations that evaluate them about which objectives the NGO should pursue and which strategies it should utilize. Goals and strategies that win approval and support from some recipients or observers may thus provoke withdrawal of support or even hostile opposition from others. Hiring rangers to prevent hunting or gathering forest products in a nature reserve, for example, may earn an international environmental NGO kudos from its supporters in the Global North, but condemnation from local villagers. Similarly, efforts to involve local communities in nature protection may please international funders but displease government officials who are accustomed to calling the shots.

Where two or more organizations with the same general resource needs and objectives operate in the same social context, they must either compete for resources or find a way to increase the total amount of resources available. They also become subject to comparisons by evaluators, potentially affecting the amount of resources each obtains. For example, an environmental NGO that wants to plant trees in order to fight desertification competes most strongly for international funding and government support with other NGOs in its area with the exact same mission; however, it also competes with NGOs with similar missions and with similar NGOs in other areas. It may even compete with environmental

NGOs with completely different missions or non-environmental NGOs focused on goals such as health or development. Unless it can locate new sources of funding or support, an NGO must convince its funding and government partners that it is living up to their goals for it—which may be considerably broader than or differ from its own preferred goals—better than its competitors.

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