The Nature and Origins of Social Venture Mission: An Exploratory Study of Political Ideology and Moral Foundations

Entrepreneurship Illustrations

Author Information : 

U. David Park, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University
(Equal Authorship)

David S. Lucas, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University

Year of Publication: Journal of Business Venturing (2022)

Summary of Findings: We encode the moral discourse in over 50,000 nascent nonprofits’ mission statements, revealing heterogeneity in the moral values used (or not used) by these social ventures and showing how this relates to the founding teams’ political ideology.

Research Questions: We pose four framing questions to structure the exploratory analysis in our paper. First, to what extent do social ventures embed moral discourse in their mission statements? Second, to what extent does the moral discourse in social ventures’ mission statements diverge, such that organizations articulate distinct moral foundations? Third, to what extent do social venture missions embody multiple moral values? Fourth, how does the founding team’s political ideology relate to their mission’s moral discourse?

What we know: Organizational mission is a fundamental feature of social ventures, informing who they are, what they do, and why they do it. But despite this profound connection to organizational identity, strategy, and values, surprisingly little work focuses on the nature and origins of social venture mission. In fact, researchers often ascribe a kind of “moral heroism” to social venture founders without considering the potential competition among the values motivating disparate and potentially conflicting efforts to “do good.” Our study transcends this assumption to instead focus directly on the differences in moral discourse used across social ventures.

Novel Findings: This study breaks new ground in social entrepreneurship by conducting exploratory quantitative analysis on the moral discourse in social venture mission. Ours is the first study to study moral language in social venture missions at this scale, and it is also the first study to relate such moral values to social venture founders’ political ideology. Particularly, we draw inspiration from moral foundations theory (MFT) and upper echelons theory and find that 1) moral discourse is prevalent in nascent nonprofit missions (roughly 80% used language indicative of at least one moral foundation and 42% used language from multiple moral foundations), and 2) founders’ political ideologies are associated with the moral discourse in their nonprofits’ stated missions in intriguing ways. These findings are used to articulate a new research agenda for future work in the areas of social venture mission and political ideology.

Novel Methodology: We adopt a few novel methodologies in this paper. First, we use computer-aided text analysis (CATA) to identify the moral foundations espoused in mission statements, making use of an important organizational artifact that signifies the central and distinctive values they aim to uphold. Previous studies have yet to examine stated organizations' mission fully and systematically. Second, we use voter registration which represents a novel source of political ideology data. Voter registration is very common and captures individual political ideology accurately at a large scale, without conflation with the instrumental value of other political expressions like monetary contributions.

Implications for Society: Organizations pursue many different potential solutions when mobilizing to addressing grand societal challenges, and sometimes these solutions generate considerable conflict. For instance, in the case of homelessness, two competing service approaches include "Housing First," where few behavioral requirements are imposed so as to limit barriers to assistance, and more "traditional" models where behavioral changes are seen as central to a successful transition into housing independence. Our work suggests that the debate among competing solutions like this is not merely about "what to do," but rather what is fundamentally "right." Directing the societal conversation in this way can help facilitate dialogue and progress in the organizational responses to grand challenges like this.

Implications on Research: Because our study is "exploratory," it yields many fruitful directions for new research. For instance, scholars might look to study how moral values inform organizational performance, both economically and socially. Researchers could also engage our insights in relation to the collective action dynamics associated with the many organizations that collaborate and compete in relation to a particular social issue (e.g., affordable housing). Scholars could also draw new connections to "mission drift," to understand how organizations become untethered from the moral values they once championed. These are just a few of the opportunities we outline in our paper's discussion.

Full Citations: David S. Lucas and U. David Park. The Nature and Origins of Social Venture Mission: An Exploratory Study of Political Ideology and Moral Foundations. Journal of Business Venturing (Forthcoming). 

Abstract: Although the organizational mission is central to social venturing, little is known about the nature and origins of social venture missions. In particular, the field lacks a framework for understanding the moral content of nascent ventures’ “prosocial” missions that rely on quite different—and potentially conflicting—moral values. We engage in an exploratory study, drawing on moral foundations theory and upper echelons theory to develop framing questions related to the moral discourse in social venture missions and the role of founders’ political ideology in relation to this moral discourse. We construct a novel dataset using computer-aided text analysis on the mission statements of over 50,000 nascent nonprofit ventures in the United States, supplemented by voter registration data from 17 states and Washington, D.C. Our findings reveal rich nuance in the moral discourse found in social venture mission statements. Furthermore, founding teams’ political ideologies are strongly associated with the moral discourse in their social ventures’ stated missions—and in ways that differ intriguingly from findings in moral psychology at the individual level. We draw on these new insights to develop a roadmap for future research on organizational mission in relation to social venturing, moral markets, mission drift, and political ideology.

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