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Dissertation Abstract

Application of Role Theory to Nonprofit Organization Executives: A Case Study

Therese M. Swetnam
Regent University

The purpose of the study was to examine the applicability of role theory to executives in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations are fraught with ambiguity with respect to outcome measures and delineation of leadership roles, especially between the board and executive director. Job-related membership associations (JRMAs), a subset of nonprofit organizations, are unique with respect to requirements for leader background, board approach used, and organizational identity issues. These variables have not been explored in role theory. A case study methodology was used for this study to provide a richer understanding of organizational relationships and behaviors as they relate to role theory in this context. Particular attention was given to understanding the interplay of leader characteristics; board approach; and organization factors such as identity, structure, and culture and how these dynamics affect role ambiguity and conflict for the executive. Data were collected over a 2-year period and included review of archival information, structured interviews, and a survey instrument. The findings suggest that the ambiguity inherent in this environment create specific challenges for executive directors of JRMAs. Importantly, the study provided a deeper understanding of the constituent representative board approach—its advantages and disadvantages; how this approach affects role ambiguity for a JRMA executive director; and its impact on organizational identity, structure, and culture. Furthermore, the findings suggest that executive experience gained in the for-profit sector may not be directly transferable to the nonprofit sector. This study provides insight into role ambiguity and conflict for executives in JRMAs and provides a basis for future research into how leadership models may need to be adapted for the specific challenges of these organizations.