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The Social Meanings of the Third Sector: How Action and Purpose Shape Everyday Understandings of “Nonprofit”

Curtis Child, Eva Witesman

Abstract: How do nonspecialists of nonprofit practice, law, and scholarship conceptualize the third sector? This article explores the everyday meanings of nonprofit organization and action empirically by reporting on a survey-based exercise in which research participants coded statements describing qualitatively different interactions between various types of entities. The survey, drawing on Crawford and Ostrom’s grammar of institutions, allows for an examination of how lay observers make sense of the sectoral boundaries that occupy specialists’ attention. We find that research participants are less prone to code interactions consistently with the nominal sectors of the organizations presented to them and more inclined to code the interactions based on the types of actions organizations take and their rationale for those actions. We argue that understanding the everyday meaning of nonprofit has important implications for theory and practice.
Keywords: survey / nonprofit / sectoral / understanding the everyday / code interactions / actions organizations / research participants / practice

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