Quants and Qualia in the Discourse of Social Purpose Organisations

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.3.05 (Clement House)
Julia Eva Morley, London School of Economics, London, United Kingdom
This study investigates the increased use of business language and statistics by UK social purpose organisations.  In particular, it focuses on the increase in social impact reporting on the websites of UK social purpose organisations over the last decade (Mair et al., 2014, Nicholls, 2009) and the effect of this discursive shift on the social identity and motivation of staff at these organisations. Whereas traditional representations of charitable activities focus on personal accounts of individuals' experiences, or the qualitative character of a particular experience, qualia, social impact reporting is abstract, often financial, and aimed at pleasing investment professionals (or quants) at social investment funders. These funders argue that social impact reporting improves allocative efficiency of resources within the social sector at the same time as increasing the effectiveness of social purpose organisations.

Several findings emerge from this study. (1) Social purpose organisations choose to report social impact in order to manage their legitimacy for a group of financial stakeholders (Suchman, 1995; Neu et al.,1998), which is itself dominated by investment professionals. Thus, professionalisation has played an important role in the emergence of this new language of impact (DiMaggio and Powell,1983; Abbott,1988, Hwang and Powell, 2009; Suddaby and Viale, 2011), but from a distance. (2) The extent of adoption varies between organisations and examples of decoupling or symbolic adoption are found (MeyerandRowan,1977). Some organisations merely report impact for window-dressing purposes when the practice of impact measurement has not been internalised within the organisation -  which I refer to as `business-washing'. (3) However, social purpose organisations have multiple stakeholders (Ebrahimetal:2014). I find that attempts at managing their legitimacy have resulted in incongruous couplings of reporting styles on their websites.  (4) This incoherent discourse is indicative of tensions within organisations resulting from the adoption of social impact reporting, that can be explained using theories of self-categorisation and social identity (Tajfel,1972; Tajfel,1978; BartelandWiesenfeld,2013).  (5) However, even if social purpose organisations engage merely in business-washing, without any internalisation of social impact reporting, we still observe an adverse effect on social identity and staff motivation. This is because the using business style descriptions of the activities undertaken by staff at social purpose entities can negatively affect staff motivation. The attempt at serving two masters, even in name only, may destabilise the moral underpinnings of social purpose organisations and thus attempts to improve allocative efficiency and organisational effectiveness.