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:



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