Not-for–profit organizations and customers: trying to solve the puzzle

Lately, I gave a lecture on shareholders, using Mitchell et al. (1997) Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: defining the principle of who and what really counts. In this paper, they try to describe an instrument which can be used by managers to identify the stakeholders and their relative importance.

This is important, because given any organization, the whole world (and perhaps the whole universe) can be seen as some kind of an stakeholder. So it is important to order your stakeholders one a scale between very urgent towards ignore. However, the order in the stakeholders is not given, but dynamic. If time changes, positions and influence can change.

The dimensions Mitchell et al. (1997) use are:

  • Power: ..a party to a relationship has power, to the extent it has or can gain access to coercive, utilitarian, or normative means, to impose its will in the relationship… (p. 865)
  • Legitimacy: …”a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions”.. (quoting                Suchman, 1995, p.866)
  • Urgency: .. time sensitivity is necessary, it is not sufficient to identify a stakeholder’s claim or “manager relationship” as urgent. In addition, the stakeholder must view its claim on the firm or its relationship with the firm as critical or highly important. …. (p.867)



So shareholders are the ultimate dominant stakeholders (having power to change the policy of the firm and having a legitimate claim to do so). However, when there is an idea that present management is making large mistakes, they will want to change management fast and they become definitive stakeholders.

The same will happen when an environmental pressure group, who have legitimate claims and a sense of urgency (dependent stakeholders) acquire political support; becoming powerful and so definitive stakeholders.

Customers have a legitimate claim on the firm. Next, they have a discreet power, if they get a sense of urgency, a customer’s strike will force the firm to act in a desirable way.

By determining the strategy of a not-for –profit organization (whether an NGO or an educational organization) it is often not possible to determine a customer, an individual or group who pays for the service or product offered. Stakeholder analyzes can help to answer the question: For who are we doing what we do? What is our value-offering to whom?

For example, education has several goals, depending on the individual or group you ask. If we take the four kinds of “aspirations” of Christensen et al (2011, 1) and combine them with the stakeholders who have an interest in these goals, we get the following combination:

Goal Stakeholder(s)
1. Maximize human potential StudentEmployers
2. Facilitate a vibrant participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate that is capable of not being “spun” by self-interested leaders GovernmentSociety 
3. Hone the skills, capabilities and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and economically competitive GovernmentEmployersStudents
4. Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently-and that these differences merit respect rather than persecution GovernmentSociety


Christensen et al. (2011) furthermore point out that education is used as a sort of magic cure, for several societal problems (ranging from poverty towards anti-terrorism). Budgets, regrettably, do not  rise in the same amount as requests do.

Society at large is too big and not specific enough to be anything else than a discretionary or demanding stakeholder. Employers can be divided into two categories; as part of the society, defining certain legitimate demands on the competencies of students, but without power. Another group is a real customer, paying institutions to organize refresher courses and alike. In that case, they have both the power and the legitimate to influence (this kind of) education: becoming dominant stakeholders.

Governments and other financiers are also dominant stakeholders which goals should be taken seriously into account. As described above, goals are added to the original goals as society changes, but budgets overall remain the same adding budget control as an additional goal.

Students want to learn, to further their career, to increase their social skills. They want to learn the right things in the right way. This makes them legitimate stakeholders with some sense of urgency. However, question is how much power they have? In most educational systems, students pay fees, but not enough to reimburse costs. So who determines which are the right things to learn? Governments finance the major part of educational programs, but often based on the number of students, certificates and awarded degrees. Yet, academic teaching is supposed to be founded in academic research, which is financed by governments and corporations. So indirect these determine the content of the programs.

The goals of Christensen et al. (2011) concentrates on the external stakeholders. Of course employers (teachers but also administrative personnel) are important stakeholders. Employment means not only income, but also (hopefully) a meaningful work environment.

It is interesting to see what happens when the stakeholders’ aims differ.

For example, students campaign for free education: Free education is not just about the money. It’s about the working conditions of those who make our education possible, and about democratising and liberating our institutions and the curriculum; funding vocational and further education, living grants and childcare that allows women to freely access learning.

In the Netherlands, students and teachers occupy part of the University of Amsterdam protesting against a perceived reduction in quality of teaching and too little democracy.

It is the Board of the HEI’s who have to unite or compromise the different conflicting goals of the diverse stakeholders. Power and urgency fight for influence.


I don’t think that this blog solves the puzzle of the role of “customers” or stakeholders in education. Most teachers I know will say that they teach because of the students. However, as seen above, it is important to realize that funding partners will influence our institutional targets. As far as these coincide with the personal goals of the teachers and students, this will be reinforcing; however when they conflict, it becomes interesting.




Professor R. Edward Freeman speaks about the role of business in society: Purpose of business is not maximizing profit for shareholders, but is about changing the world!




Christensen, C., M. Horn and C. Johnson (2011) Disrupting Class, McGraw Hill, New York

Mitchell R., B. Agle, D. Wood (1997) Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1997), pp. 853-886

Osterwalder, A., Y. Pigneur (2010), Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Augustus 2010

Articles on budget cuts:


Internet, sharing and openness; lessons from e-commerce

At the beginning of the century, the influence of the Internet on business really took off. This induced managers and scientists to reflect on the role of the Internet on the way we do business. One of the major changes was the openness and sharing. Another influence is the increasing competition. Because information flows “openly”, the possibility to compare prices, quality and other characteristics increases beyond the geographical proximity.

Education is only beginning to feel the influence of both trends. The High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education has published a new rapport on the New Modes of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. In this report, the importance of technological progress for the widening of access of HE is stressed. As they state “Online technologies provide opportunities to learn anywhere, any time and from anyone”. Non-traditional learners have access to new forms of learning which will increase lifelong learning and ongoing professionalization.

In a world were global politics become more complex and worldwide manual labour has become a commodity, both European democracy and Europe’s competitive position require an ever increasing education of its population. Creativity and smart solutions have to take the place of mass production; not only the designers and developers have to be high educated, the average labour force also has to scale up. Another interesting observation is that “The goal should be to ensure that all publicly funded education resources are openly available”. This is not only a support of the Open Educational Resources-movement, but can be interpreted broader: education should be free as mostly all public educational institutes are mainly funded by the government.

Tony Bates (2014) concludes his review of Moocs with the observation, that “[A]t some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs might fit with the strategy”.

When we look into different sectors, where openness plays a role, we can distinguish:

– Open as in free to use, re-use and distribute: the open source movement in the sector of Information Technology. In general there are two different approaches. Communities develop free software, whereas companies are allowed to use the free software to sell specialized adaptations (only making the customers pay for the added value). In the other case, firms give away software or products to earn money with additions to these products and services (freemium, ranging from WinZip to razors).

– open as in open access in the publishing sector, where costs are shifted from users (readers) towards producers (researchers, writers); the intermediate firms keep the same or more income. Often open access is motivated by the fact that most research is funded by public funds, so it should be freely available for the public. Publishers are then compensated for their costs by authors’ fees.

– open as in free to participate, as the Internet opens the possibility for the public to participate in journalism or quality control. Furthermore firms use customers to improve their products and develop new products and services; labeled co-creation.

– open as in open innovation, the process whereby firms ‘spin-in’  ideas and inventions of others and ‘spin-out’ ideas and inventions which do not fit into the business models of the firm, especially in the industrial sectors. IP-rights are essential as they make it possible to trade inventions which can or will not be used internally. By selling and buying inventions, the efficiency and size of innovations in society will increase. Technology increases the possibilities for innovation on a small scale. Sharing of knowledge and resources is a major force behind the MakersMovement, in which small inventors design, prototype and -eventually- distribute their innovative products or services (see Anderson, 2012).

Wiley (2014) – in his discussion on Moocs – defines openness in education as the transition of ‘open entry’ (in the sense of no entry demands from the Open Universities) towards ‘open licenses’, as in Open Educational Resources (OER), towards a possible  ‘open educational infrastructure’.

The Open Educational Resources movement strives to generate educational resources, which are shared for free (although often developed using subsidies of national governments and private institutions).  Moocs are a part of this development, but where the majority of OER is aimed at teachers, Moocs are developed for usage by learners, opening up participation.

Moocs are also, more then OER, examples of the ‘give-part sell-part’ approach to openness. In the regulations of several Mooc-platforms, we see explicit remarks about the earning potential of alternative usage of the Moocs: licensing, assessment and certification but also use a HRM-instrument and corporate universities.

This definition of openness is consistent with the 5-components model for open education (5COE) of Mulder and Janssen [2013]. This model analyses the different activities of (open) education and it is possible to un-bundle these into three components on the supply side and two on the demand side.

On the supply side they distinguish:

  1. Open educational resources (OER)
  2. Open learning services (OLS): online and virtual activities which are available either free or for payment, including assessments, exams and communities.
  3. Open teaching efforts (OTE): all supporting activities as teaching, ict-support and other roles in (distance) teaching; these activities will generally not be free.

On the demand side they describe the following two components:

  1. Open to learners’ needs (OLN): open education should be free in the sense of time, space and tempo; however, it should also be affordable for everyone.
  2. Open to employability & capabilities development (OEC): education should be open towards new and changing demands from society and the labour market, but also promote critical thinking, creativity and personal growth.

Christensen et al. (2014) uses a similar approach to forecast a more disruptive development with respect to the (American) educational sector. Distance education, the competence based approach, the existence of high quality, accredited open educational materials offers commercial firms the opportunity to enter the educational sector, aiming at low cost segments and non-consumers (of existing education). According to them, it is only a matter of time before the last bastion of the traditional mixture of academic research and education, the accreditation organizations, will fall. So unbundling education at an organizational level could result in unbundling at a sectorial or national level and a new division between open en exclusive forms of education.

Most educational programs are not financed by their students, but subsidized by governments, churches or private enterprises. Depending on the fee, the financial barriers of participation in education are substantial to non-exsting. Contrary to the (average) openness in finances, most institutions have entry barriers in terms of quality requirements. Only the Open Universities (yet not all, and not for all programs) accept all students without a formal qualification. So, although open access in a financial way exists in some European countries, where the majority of the costs is shifted from the individual towards the collective. Yet open participation is even rarer due to qualitative restrictions for non-degree learners. This is an explanation why Moocs have attracted so much attention: it is the change for many not formally qualified learners to follow relevant academic courses.

Open innovation is based on collaboration, based on trust or contracts and on bought knowledge. HEI’s have a long tradition on working together on research projects. Yet, it seems that in the field of education, both developing and exploiting courses and programs, collaboration is less common. Still, there are large opportunities to exploit the Long Tail of Education. In Anderson’s long tail, the Internet combines two factors. The distribution and marketing costs of digital materials is approaching zero, so it’s only production costs which determine the price; furthermore is it possible to reach out to more people than locally interested. In the music business this means that a Celtic classical ensemble can distribute its music towards a global public covering costs, whereas in the traditional music industry this was only possible for hits. In education, this means that it should be possible for small audience courses to survive, provided that the teachers work together and share resources.

The success of Open Innovation depends on the right attitude. It requires a realization that the organization has to absorb external knowledge and has the competence to do so. It also requires an awareness of the strengths of the organization, as the external knowledge has to be complementary with the existing knowledge and competencies. External knowledge can destruct the existing business model and help to build a new one, but only when the competencies are available to transform the knowledge in an actual business model.

This means that opening up the supply side of the educational business model, we should ask ourselves questions like:

  1. What are our strengths and weaknesses, in the services we provide towards our students, our financiers and society?
  2. Which external knowledge can lessen our weaknesses and how do we acquire this knowledge? Are collaborations possible?
  3. How do we exploit and enlarge our strengths? Can the be of use in the collaborations to lessen the weaknesses?

For example, specific knowledge could be used to develop online courses which are taught to both our own students as students of other institutes for a fee. Even the expertise to develop online courses itself could be used to make excellent external knowledge available for our own students, by seeking combinations of our excellence in online teaching, combined with the knowledge of research institutes.

So opening up on the supply side may be a case of showing the possibilities of win-win situations by combining the strengths (or weaknesses) of the different institutions involved. Opening up on the demand side, from teacher/institution to student is perhaps both simpler and more difficult. As shown above, an Open Access-model requires a shift of costs from the users towards the producers. The simple solution is the removal of all fees for students and a full government funding of the HEI’s. This can be resisted on ideological grounds. For example, the British government finances students through loans, so they will choose the HEI’js best fitted for them, challenging HEI’js to improve their education in such a way that most students chose for them. If this is a good model to improve educational quality and the knowledge level in the economy can be discussed, however, it is one of the used models.

The second barrier to openness depicted above is the use of qualitative entry demands. Of course, there are formal restrictions on entry, but institutions are often more strict than legally required. For example, in the Netherlands, the entry demands for students with a vocational degree when entering a university are very high. That is not only because they lack research competencies, or the knowledge of specific academic subjects, but also because educational institutions in the Netherlands strive for the best students. The flexible part of their budgets depends on the success ratios of students and the amount of degrees awarded. By discouraging the lesser students, success ratios will be enhanced and for every student the “degree bonus” will be received.

Openness will increase experimentation, which will lead to a certain amount of failure. Not every (open) invention becomes a sustainable innovation and not every individual starting an academic program will become a successful student. Yet, without experimentation no successes too!

Remaining question of course is who is going to pick up the bill of the students’  “free lunch”?

Live BC – Before College / AD – After Degree according to 9GAG


Anderson , C., (2014) Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Crown Business

Bates, T. (2014), A review of MOOCs and their assessment tools,  , accessed November 2014

European Commission (2014), Report to the European Commission on New modes of learning and teaching in higher education, October 2014, ISBN 978-92-79-39789-9, doi:10.2766/81897, , accessed November 2014

Mulder, F.,  B. Janssen (2013, in Dutch) Open (het) onderwijs, Surf Trendrapport, (accessed October 2014);
English version:

Wiley, D. (2014) The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure, September 18, retrieved September 30,  2014,

Wiley, D.,  (2014), The Open Education Infrastructure, and Why We Must Build It, July 15, 2014, , accessed December 18, 2014