What does it mean to do good? Most nonprofit organizations have mission statements outlining their answer to this question. But across organizations, “different people may disagree on what is ‘good’ in the first place,” says David Lucas, assistant professor of entrepreneurship.
In an exploratory study recently published in the Journal of Business Venturing, Lucas and assistant professor of entrepreneurship David Park set out to understand differences in the moral values implicit in different organizations’ mission statements and how they relate to the political ideologies of their founders.
The authors cataloged five values central to moral foundations theory—Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—across more than 50,000 new nonprofits with the help of computer-aided text analysis. They then used voter registration data to capture the political party affiliations of the organizations’ founders and looked at how well they predicted the presence of language associated with the different moral foundations.
The scale of the study and the fact that new ventures are linked to their founders’ political affiliations are both new. Most importantly, Lucas says, “our study is the first to look at moral discourse in new ventures’ mission statements.”
Park and Lucas identified several intriguing differences in the moral discourse used by nonprofits affiliated with different parties. In accordance with previous findings, for example, conservative-led nonprofits were more likely to reference words linked to the foundation of Sanctity, while liberal-led organizations more frequently alluded to Fairness. But in a departure from existing, individual-level findings, liberals referenced Loyalty and Authority, while conservatives focused more on Care. (The authors attribute this pattern to conservatives typically viewing civil society as responsible for addressing social issues, in contrast to liberals, who look to government instead. The latter may be emphasizing Loyalty in relation to organized groups such as labor unions.)
In practice, such different moral foundations—which vary even within the same state and cause areas—can result in nonprofits choosing diverging, even conflicting approaches to solving such issues as homelessness. One may focus on “Housing First” with low barriers to entrance, while another may require behavioral changes as part of a transition to housing independence.
“We think our research helps to shift the conversation about the ‘moral’ side of organizational emergence toward a more nuanced approach,” Lucas explains. “We laid out a number of research directions to help advance work in this area based on our findings.” Together the authors are continuing to work on the role of political ideology in new nonprofits, paying particular attention to the composition of founding teams (e.g., whether founders share political affiliations) and how this may influence the organization’s outcomes.
Lucas, D. S. and Park, U.D. The Nature and Origins of Social Venture Mission: An Exploratory Study of Political Ideology and Moral Foundations. Journal of Business Venturing vol. 38, issue 2 (March 2023).