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Defining the non-profit sector: some lessons from history

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This paper seeks to establish whether the structural-operational definition of the sector, used by the John Hopkins Comparative Non-profit Sector Project (JHCNSP), is universal in its applicability. Historical case studies of primary health care and social housing provision in nineteenth-century England demonstrate that the definition cannot accommodate the institutional diversity of earlier periods and does not produce meaningful sectoral distinctions. The structural-operational definition rules out of the sector a significant proportion of non-statutory, non-profit maximising providers. In particular, it excludes the mutual aid organisations which are widely recognised as important for the development of civil society and which have historically been considered to be key components of the sector. These case studies suggest that the structural-operational definition limits the capacity of the JHCNSP to fulfil its aim of establishing “the factors that promote or retard the sector’s development” due to potential measurement errors and because of the pattern of development which the project implicitly assumes for the non-profit sector.

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