Janet Elizabeth Rechtman, Ph.D. is a 2008 graduate of the PHD Program in Leadership and Change at Antioch University.

Dissertation Committee

  • Richard Couto, Ph.D., Committee Chair
  • Laurien Alexandre, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Philomena Essed, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Alan Abramson, Ph.D., External Reader


nonprofit, executive director, institutional theory, field theory, leadership, isomorphism

Document Type


Publication Date



In describing the course of change in a dynamic field such as the nonprofit sector, neo-institutional theorists argue that isomorphic forces such as replication of best practices tend to increase the homogeneity of actors. This interplay of structure and agency creates what is known as the structuration of an institutional field. These theorists have little to say about the people who influence and are influenced by these dynamics. This study explores this personal experience at the micro level of the nonprofit field executive leadership. It focuses on their challenges related to the isomorphic pressures resulting from: (1) socio-economic roles, (2) being businesslike, (3) being altruistic, and (4) relating to the external environment. Interviews with executive directors of nonprofit organizations in the Atlanta area affirmed that nonprofit EDs use several strategies to hold together the tensions among these forces: (1) balancing intuition with data; (2) relying on the experience of others as a learning tool; (3) taking an improvisational approach to problem-solving; (4) being flexible and resourceful in managing subordinates; and (5) regarding fundraising as a necessary evil and a business means to an altruistic end. Their responses tended to be more self expressive than business-oriented, displaying an aversion to using purely business terms to discuss altruistic outcomes. In addition, the study engaged the executive directors in the construction of three theoretical perspectives on the practice of nonprofit leadership: (1) the essential themes that characterize the experience of being a nonprofit ED; (2) a micro-level framework for understanding the landscape where nonprofit EDs do their work; and (3) within this framework, the degree to which nonprofit EDs influence and are influenced by the structuration of the nonprofit field. By enhancing the understanding of leadership provided by EDs, the current study advances emerging theories of nonprofit enterprise and clarifies how nonprofit EDs lead in context. Further, the methodology used to derive these findings can be helpful in learning conversations within the sector and between nonprofit leaders and their counterparts in business, government, and foundations. The electronic version of this dissertation is accessible at the OhioLINK ETD Center,