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Nonprofit Isomorphism: An Australia–United States Comparison


This paper examines the organizational structures of nonprofit organizations in Australia and the United States. Using random samples of nonprofits drawn from the two organizational populations, the analysis compares the extent of structural resemblance or isomorphism in each. It detects similar levels of isomorphism for several structural characteristics. The paper interprets this finding as reflecting expectations for nonprofit organizations that stretch worldwide.


Cet article analyse les structures organisationnelles des organisations à but non lucratif en Australie et aux Etats-Unis. En proposant des exemples pris au hasard des objectifs non lucratifs des deux populations organisationnelles, l’analyse compare l’étendue les ressemblances ou de l’isomorphisme de chacune d’elles. Cela permet de détecter l’isomorphisme de plusieurs caractéristiques structurelles. L’article interprète le fruit de ces recherches en reflétant les attentes des organisations à but non lucratif qui s’étendent dans le monde entier.


Dieser Beitrag untersucht die oranisatorischen Strukturen von Nonprofit-Organisationen in Australien und den Vereinigten Staaten. Unter Bezugnahme auf zufällig ausgewählte Stichproben beider organisatorischen Populationen vergleicht die Analyse das jeweilige Ausmaß struktureller Ähnlichkeit oder Isomorphie. Es werden ähnlich ausgeprägte Isomorphien bei mehreren strukturellen Charakteristiken entdeckt. Der Beitrag interpretiert diese Ergebnisse als ein Spiegelbild der Erwartungen für Nonprofit-Organisationen weltweit.


Este trabajo examina las estructuras organizativas de las organizaciones sin ánimo de lucro de Australia y los Estados Unidos. Utilizando muestras aleatorias de estas organizaciones extraídas de dos poblaciones organizativas, el análisis compara el nivel de semejanza estructural o isomorfismo de cada una. Detecta niveles similares de isomorfismo en varias características estructurales. El trabajo hace una interpretación de este dato que refleja que las expectativas de las organizaciones sin ánimo de lucro son comunes en todo el mundo.

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  1. 1.

    My thanks to Helmut Anheier for this insight.

  2. 2.

    On the other hand, national populations of organizations may differ in their solutions to the same problem. This is the import of Arrow’s phrase, “the multiplicity of possible long-run states” (Arrow 1994, p. x).

  3. 3.

    See David (1985) for the most frequently invoked example, the QWERTY keyboard.

  4. 4.

    Although this would not be the result expected under path dependent processes, different histories in different nations could lead coincidentally to similar levels of homogeneity.

  5. 5.

    Actually, from a statistical point of view, a finding, with reasonable confidence, that the two samples’ means are the same requires that their respective standard deviations not be too great. This suggests that finding similarity between the two countries’ nonprofit sectors may require that each country’s sector be isomorphic.

  6. 6.

    For a systematic application of these processes to the explanation of nonprofit isomorphism in Australia, see Leiter (2005b).

  7. 7.

    Outside the purposes of this paper, but consistent with scholarship on organizational isomorphism is the possibility that industries rather than legal forms, such as nonprofits, may be the organizational field within which isomorphism is produced. Industries, that is, workplaces that produce the same product or service, face the same environment of competitors, suppliers, customers, and regulators and use the same or similar technology. These factors increase the likelihood of isomorphism. Based on an earlier analysis of the same Australian data as used in the present analysis, I suggested this focus on industries (Leiter 2005b) and went on to demonstrate it across legal forms especially for the Australian health care industry (2005a). The latter finding echoes some other studies of the health care industry in which regulation, competition, and professionalization may lie behind isomorphism (Paradis and Cummings 1986; Potter 2001; Sloan et al. 2001); other studies, however, have not detected isomorphism in the health care industry and point instead to important differences by legal form (Garg et al. 1999; Scheid-Cook 1992; Schlesinger and Gray 2006).

  8. 8.

    Choice of these two nonprofit sectors arises both from the author’s personal circumstances as a US based academic who has ongoing ties with a nonprofit academic centre in Australia and from the availability of the required data regarding the two countries.

  9. 9.

    This phenomenon can itself be seen as an example of normative and mimetic isomorphism.

  10. 10.

    Earlier National Organizations Surveys from the United States (1991 and 1995) have several advantages but would lead to uncertainty about whether differences from the Australian data are due to the time when the data were collected.

  11. 11.

    Details are available from the author on request. Two possible reasons for the US data’s poorer recreation of the industry employment distribution: (1) As explained in Table 1, isolation of private nonprofits from other establishments may involve error; and (2) NOS asked for the establishment’s industry, but the open-ended responses were not coded when the data were prepared for analysis; therefore, the author’s efforts, after securing the verbatim responses, had to substitute for professional industry coding with reliability checking.

  12. 12.

    More accurately, workplace or establishment characteristics. Unless otherwise noted, the use of “organization” or “organizational” in this paper will refer to workplaces.

  13. 13.

    We examine the age distribution for its extent of similarity, even though age is not typically considered subject to isomorphic pressures.

  14. 14.

    While AusNOS asked for the educational credential generally required of the top manager in the organization, NOS did not. Therefore, we cannot examine professionalization comparatively as a source of variation in nonprofit structures.

  15. 15.

    Both countries’ distributions are shifted to the large end by the hypernetwork sampling method. Moreover, to the extent that nonprofits are larger in the United States than in Australia, the differences in the distributions may be accentuated by the sampling method. In particular, health care nonprofits, which are relatively large compared to other nonprofits in both counties and which comprise over twice the portion of nonprofit employment in US as in Australia (Lyons et al. 1999; Sokolowski and Salamon 1999), have slightly greater representation in the US NOS than in AusNOS, which could lead to a greater rightward shift in the US than the Australian nonprofit employment size distribution reported here.

  16. 16.

    The correlations (given as Australia, then, US) between levels and employment size (no casuals) are .46 and .34, and between levels and departments are .32 and .59. All four correlations are statistically significant at the .01 level.

  17. 17.

    Of course, conceptions of hard work may, nonetheless, differ considerably between the two countries.


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An early version of this paper was presented at the 2006 ISTR meetings in Bangkok. That draft was written in part during residence at Queensland University of Technology’s Centre of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies. Thanks to the Centre’s Director, Myles McGregor-Lowndes, for making me so welcome. I appreciate suggestions from Richard Clerkin on the earlier version and the unusually searching and constructive reviews secured by the journal.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Leiter.

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Leiter, J. Nonprofit Isomorphism: An Australia–United States Comparison. Voluntas 19, 67–91 (2008).

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  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Organization theory
  • Isomorphism
  • Australia
  • United States