Sociology 402 requires that students carry out an organizational case study as their major assignment for the course. This is a field research project in which you select a nonprofit organization and collect information about its activities, its structure, its resource base, the institution it relates to, and its relationships with other organizations. The following is a description of some issues to consider when doing an organizational case study. It is a section I've copied from the FIELD NOTES MANUAL I use with SO 201 and that we use in many field research courses here at Bucknell. It will give you an idea of the kinds of information you will have to collect to do an organizational case study.

Organizational Case Studies

America is an organizational society so nearly any field experience one has is likely to involve an organization in a more or less direct way. Most internships will be placements that drop you into the middle of a large bureaucratic organization of some sort, but even if you find yourself in a small social agency with three or four staff members organizational issues probably play a major role in shaping the experience you have.

Getting used to the culture of your organization and of its social service industry is one of your main jobs, and one of the greatest benefits you will receive from this experience. To be blunt, internships help people get jobs. They do so because they provide you with hands on experience, because you learn about the priorities and concerns of employees, and because you get some sense of how to navigate the professional networks let you search for work in a way that produces results.

But helping you get work is not the main purpose of this field assignment, learning to make sense of the setting you are in is the main task here. What you must know is that in organizations many things go on behind the scenes that are absolutely central in shaping the concerns and priorities of your work supervisor and everyone else in the setting. Many of these things are easy enough to learn about if you know to look for them, and if you have a general idea about the major categories that shape life in organizations.

Most of these categories are familiar to us as members of the common culture, but it is important to list them and talk about how to get information that will tell how these elements work in the particular organization you are working in. What follows is a list of categories with a brief discussion of how to learn about them.

At the end of this chapter you will find a form called the “Organization Information Sheet.” You ought to fill this out for the organization you are working in (your instructor might require this!) Doing so is likely to be a bit intimidating since you probably will have to ask leaders of your organization for information, and some of the information you want to know might seem to you something that an organization would not want to share. Most of the information listed is actually available to the public—or ought to be available (some nonprofit organizations do not like to release financial information but you can usually get it on your own by going to one of the following web sites: Internet Nonprofit Center (organizational profiles of all nonprofits:; Duke University Nonprofit Program (general information on nonprofits:; National Charities Information Bureau (for fundraising charities):; Guidestar; The Donor’s Guide to the Nonprofit Universe: ). Some information which is not generally available still is material your supervisors will be happy to share with you if you explain that as a student you are trying to gain a proper understanding of the organization, its services, and the responsibilities of staff members. Being tactful in the way you ask is key.

Also, you will find that some of this information is not available for your organization or the questions do not make sense for the kind of organization you are studying. That’s OK, but you ought to write a note about why that’s true in the space provided for information. The way your organization does not fit is important information because we tend to stereotype organizations and processes of management. We have culturally ingrained ideas about how a bureaucracy works and what kinds of responsibilities employees have. Discovering that the organization you are studying breaks the rules helps you understand in a more creative way what’s behind the stereotypes, and maybe what’s wrong with the “traditional model.”

The information described below gets complicated and can be an entire semester project in itself. Do not let the project of collecting this information swamp or overwhelm you. This is a learning exercise meant to alert you to the ways that your immediate work setting relates to a larger organizational and societal system of services. In many ways the information you collect for this section could be seen as one of the tasks that should go on throughout your project at the same time that you are observing and taking field notes. What you need to keep in mind and understand is that the fine grained, local observations that go into your notes are not complete and self-contained but rather are connected to and represent action that is going on throughout the organization and the geographic region. While that’s hard to keep in your head, it is a big part of the world your staff supervisors live in so to understand them you have to understand this bigger system.

Kinds of Organizational Information

It is important for you to make a real effort to understand what people do in offices that you have no contact with. You can usually gain this understanding by having one or two people you work with go through the chart. As them to tell you whether they know the people holding the different positions and ask them to tell what those people are like and what they seem to do. The people you talk to might not know and that’s OK (once more, it’s useful information to know that there are mystery people in the organization.) More likely, you will find that your informants have feelings about the people, the work they do, and how these other people affect the work you are observing. Pay attention to whether your informants seem to feel ownership of the organization and investment in its well-being or whether they feel like they are “just” employees and that they are somewhat distant or alienated from the center of energy and passion that makes the organization succeed (or fail).

You may find that you work in a local organization that is small, informal, and relatively democratic, but that it is part of some larger system or organization. Battering shelters and AIDS organizations, for example, are closely tied to state-wide associations that distribute public money for the state government. Churches are often part of regional church bodies to which they are more or less closely tied (Catholics are closely tied, Episcopalians less so, independent bible churches and reform Jewish synagogues not at all). Some organizations (the YMCA or local branches of the National Cancer Society) are like fast-food franchises that are locally owned but that must follow the directives of a national office. Some public organizations (like the Area Agency for the Aging—a “quasi-nongovernmental organization or QUANGO) may look like independent organizations, but actually they may turn out to be agencies of government with boards made up of elected officials. We call these connections “vertical ties” and they may lay down many of the rules people follow in day-to-day activities.

One way of understanding the hierarchy of your organization is to learn how its system of governance works. Usually organizations will have a board of directors that legally “owns” the organization, and understanding who is on this board and how board members are selected can help a lot in understanding things the organizations does. (For example, one reason a private institution may support fraternities is that many alumni who are fraternity members are on the board and will not allow changes.) Other times, practices of an organization that puzzle you may become more sensible if you understand some principles of governance. Understanding that hospitals have a formal business board of directors, a doctor’s board, and contractual arrangements with independent physician groups (which are private businesses working within the hospital) helps to explain hospital politics. Understanding that some organizations make governance decisions by consensus of all members (a Quaker style nontraditional school in our area, Alcoholics Anonymous, many religious congregations) helps you to understand that you need to get away from conventional managerial or professional thinking to make sense of what you are seeing.

Other organizations are in charge of networks of organizations, rather than being subordinate in that sort of system. The United Way in your community is this sort of organization since it collects money for the community and then distributes it to member organizations who depend for survival on that money. The United Way has a powerful influence on what those organizations are allowed to do.

The United Way calls attention to another fact about your organization, that it is likely to be tied in cooperative ways to other organizations in the local community. For example, a program for high risk youth we work with receives referrals from the juvenile court and from ten to fifteen local school districts, it provides foster care programs and so coordinates with other foster care agencies, and it recruits volunteers from local churches. We’ve found that we cannot understand this organization without understanding these referral systems because those ties to other organizations set the rules that govern how the organization we are studying works. This set of relationships is called the “local interorganizational field”. Students usually will not be able to make sense of how it works since it involves the operations of many organizations. Be aware, however, that every social service agency is likely to have close ties to between five and twenty other organizations that shape and influence internal practices.

One of your important tasks is to learn about the values and service ethic among the people in your setting. It is a good thing to think self-consciously about how the service values you see are those that rule in another setting (one student emergency medical technician picking up a patient at the hospital reported how strange it was to have a guard yell as they departed, “let him die!”) You also need to be aware of the different service ethics held by different people in your organization. Doctors, nurses, administrators, and emergency medical technicians in the emergency have really different ideas about how to treat patients, how to relate to other staff, and how to exercise professional knowledge. Coaches and professors on your campus have really different ideas about what education is about.

Size is important because in big organizations you have many divisions where people do very different things, and sometimes those things seem to be in direct opposition to each other. Those contradictory purposes can tell you a lot about why activities in a local field setting do not quite seem to achieve the goals and purposes that they are supposed to be advancing.

Actually, one of the main themes in organizational sociology is that hidden influences, or latent functions, usually deflect organizations from carrying out their primary or manifest functions. As you become more familiar with your field setting, looking for and describing these latent functions may help you a lot in feeling that you understand your setting.

In addition to raw budget numbers, you want to pay attention to how funding is secured to pay for the program you are working in. Many organizations receive grants from foundations or government offices to set up and operate programs. You need to know what the terms of the grant are to understand what the program is supposed to be doing, and not doing. Often these funds come with frustrating restrictions attached to them that create real organizational hardships. It is not fair as a field observer just to note that a program has certain areas of ineffectiveness if you do not at the same time note that staff members are compelled to operate in certain ways.

You also will learn that staff members in many organizations spend a lot of time worrying about “their funding”. It is worth recognizing that organizations may operate very differently if they gain funding by selling a service (what is called “fee for service”) and thus can operate somewhat like a business, if they gain money from grants, or if they gain money by running public appeals and fundraising campaigns. When a grant is about to run out and there is danger that it will not be renewed, staff members understandably worry about whether they will have a job down the road. Volunteers sometimes do important work helping to do research about where new grant proposals might be submitted or collecting information the organization needs to properly complete a grant proposal. Similarly, volunteers usually play a critical role in fundraising campaigns whether it be figuring out how to run an event or organizing the necessary grunt work of stuffing envelopes or ringing doorbells.

You also will find that money issues are handled very differently in public and private organizations. In public organizations elected officials have an important role in shaping program policies, and they in turn often act in response to the needs and demands of constituents. You may find that the organization you are working in cannot do certain things because it would run afoul of the public responsibilities or political commitments of elected officials. (Our nonprofit assistance center, organized in partnership with a consortium of local governments, could not set up a service to advise local nonprofits about how to combat efforts by those local governments to tax them.)

Knowing about where money comes from and what budgetary crises confront members of your organization is among the most important data you can collect about an organization. It is important to appreciate, however, that organizations often talk about money concerns as a way of avoiding other organizational issues. If members of the board are fighting with each other over who is going to control decision making, this may come out as a concern that the organization is spending too much money. Maybe the challenging group on the board wants to start new programs, and the power group wants to make its point by forcing the chief executive office to cut budgets and reduce services (this is a familiar scenario on many college campuses.)

You might find collecting this small mountain of data on your organization great fun. Most people will not, sad to say. But by collecting that information you ought to become a lot more aware of three things about your field setting.