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CEO Power and Nonprofit Financial Performance: Evidence from Chinese Philanthropic Foundations

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Abstract

CEO power and its implications are neglected in research on nonprofit governance. This is surprising considering the crucial role of CEOs and the importance of power analysis in understanding governance. This article addresses this gap by developing a two-dimensional framework for conceptualizing CEOs’ structural power and individual power in nonprofits, and proposes several indicators to operationalize these two kinds of power. Drawing on data from a survey of 163 CEOs of Chinese foundations, this study is among the first to specifically assess how much power a CEO has and the relationship between CEO power and nonprofit performance. The findings suggest that CEOs’ structural power has a double-edged effect on nonprofit financial performance: It is positively associated with public support but also increases overhead costs.

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Notes

  1. As Zhang et al. (2011) claim, nonprofit governance can be generally “defined at the organizational level and involves a volunteer board of directors and a chief executive.”

  2. How to measure nonprofit performance is a highly controversial topic and using financial measures is just one approach. On the one hand, one could argue that financial performance is not the main objective of nonprofits, but on the other hand, financial indicators have been consistently used in the previous literature to measure nonprofit performance. See more discussion as follows.

  3. If we translate the term directly into English, the CEO of a philanthropic foundation in China is called the “secretary general,” but this article follows most of the nonprofit literature and uses the term “CEO.”

  4. As early as 1932, Berle and Means (1932) argued that in modern business corporations, a separation of ownership from control was transferring power from owners to managers, making the manager the controlling figure in the corporation. Later Burnham (1941) coined the concept of “managerial revolution” and claimed that not only for-profit companies, but all other significant organizations such as state agencies would be dominated by managerial professionals pursuing their own interests (Scott and Marshall, 2009).

  5. Some changes have been made to the dual registration system. A significant one is that the Ministry of Civil Affairs of China released a new draft of the “Regulations on the Registration and Administration of Social Organizations” in August 2018, which specify that four types of NGOs could directly register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs without being approved by professional supervisory agencies, including (1) trade associations and chambers of commerce, (2) NGOs working for science, engineering, and technology, (3) NGOs delivering social welfare, (4) NGOs providing community service. Although the new Regulations are still a draft and have not come into effect, the direct registration of four types of NGOs has been piloted in certain regions since 2012. However, in the absence of the national-level legislation, the pace of changes and reform has been slow and cautious.

  6. Brass (2002, p. 141) argues that structural positions do not have to be formal ones such as hierarchical levels; they can also be informal ones such as network positions. Structural power in this study, however, refers to the traditional Weberian authority coming from formal positions in hierarchical organizations, which is still one of the strongest and most taken-for-granted sources of power in our everyday life.

  7. Ritchie and Kolodinsky (2003) review 16 financial measurements and identify 6 of them to capture three aspects of nonprofit performance: fundraising efficiency, public support, and fiscal performance. Brown (2005) includes four financial indicators to measure three dimensions of nonprofit performance: financial performance (total revenues/total expenses; total revenues—total expenses), public support (total contributions/total revenues), and fundraising efficiency (total revenues/fundraising expense).

  8. Although my hypotheses are based on the traditional assumption that agency theory and stewardship theory are competing explanations of the role of CEOs and their managerial power, these two theories can also be understood as complementary approaches (Van Puyvelde et al. 2012). Actually, the findings of this study confirm that agency theory and stewardship theory are complementary rather than competing when it comes to understanding CEO power and its consequences (see more elaborations in the discussion section).

  9. When we built the sample in 2016, the RICF data only contained information from the year 2013.

  10. WeChat is the most popular social media application in China.

  11. When I collected the data of financial performance, the variables were measured at the ordinal level. That is, when a respondent fills in the questionnaire, what he/she needs to do is to choose a number between 1 and 5 by checking a box. The reason for designing my questionnaires in this way is because I want to increase the incentive for respondents to answer every question. Imagine this: If we ask nonprofit CEOs to answer the question about public donations of their organizations, it is relatively easier for them to check between different categories than to write down a specific number.

  12. Project 985 is a project launched by the Chinese government that involves allocating large amounts of money to the top 39 universities in China.

  13. One finding that more than 40% of the CEOs are not the best earning people in the organization is surprising. One explanation could be that board directors, particularly the board chairs, may get higher payment than CEOs, which makes them the highest paid people.

  14. As one reviewer pointed out, this is probably because high compensation of CEOs is both part of the structural power and the administrative costs.

  15. Since this study is an initial attempt to explore CEO power in nonprofits and there is no such previous work providing benchmarks to compare, assessing “high” or “low” level of power is purely based on the index range (0–1).

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Liam Swiss, Anton Oleinik, Xueguang Zhou, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this article. All errors in this work are entirely the author’s.

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Wei, Q. CEO Power and Nonprofit Financial Performance: Evidence from Chinese Philanthropic Foundations. Voluntas 32, 460–476 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-019-00187-4

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