Kim Sarnoff and Shotaro Nakamura at work in the research office


Understanding motivation, behaviour and impact in private action for public benefit.

Research at the Marshall Institute

Private action for public benefit – whether called philanthropy, charity, social entrepreneurship or the purpose-driven corporation – is experiencing both resurgence and disruption.  New mechanisms of financing, organisating and delivery raise new questions around impact; old questions of power and legitimacy remain.

Our research focuses upon mapping and analysing diverse developments in this dynamic field in both global North and South, on understanding the functions of private action for public benefit and its interaction with government and other actors, on exploring the impact of that activity in tackling the world’s most significant challenges, and on identifying ways to improve effectiveness by supporting evidence-based interventions in policy and practice.

The Institute’s areas of research fall under the following themes:

The hybrid economy and hybrid organisations

Recent decades have seen the accelerated emergence of hybrid organisations that borrow characteristics from multiple traditional economic sectors, and especially, but not exclusively, bring together profit and purpose - cooperatives, social enterprises, trading nonprofit organisations, community businesses, and purpose-driven corporations.  Hybrid mechanisms too have emerged, such as social impact bonds and impact investing.  Can hybrid organisations and hybrid mechanisms create additional and sustainable social impact and remedy some of the failures of conventional sectoral approaches?  Can they channel for social impact contrasting motivations of altruism and self-interest?  If so, what kind of hybrids? For what sort of social challenges / failures? And under what conditions and in what contexts?

Current and recent projects

Private action for public benefit, government and society

A new landscape of private action for public benefit is emerging. Boundaries between the state, market and philanthropy are increasingly fluid; the responsibility for resolving social problems seems increasingly dispersed. How can we understand the present moving frontier between market, state, and civil society? How can policy support this emergent ecosystem to enable improved social impact in different global contexts?  Areas of research interest in this field include policy analysis and development; public service delivery and the role of social enterprises and non-profit organisations; collaboration between philanthropy and the state.

Current projects

Social justice, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy

The resurgence of private action for public benefit has been criticised for undermining democratic oversight of the public good and for entrenching existing systems of structural disadvantage. Dominant approaches to and models of social change – impact investing, social entrepreneurship, charity – are accused of reflecting elite understandings rather than the cultures of communities on the ground.  There is growing and urgent criticism of the lack of diversity in decision-making and discriminatory practice in areas such as impact investing, social entrepreneurship and charity governance. More positively, there is recognition of the significance and power of grass-roots movements for social change. In what ways can private action contribute to social justice and to the redistribution of power? How can philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and other forms of private action become more inclusive and diverse?

Accelerating non-profit organisations for social impact

The work of the 100x Impact Accelerator raises a set of research questions about the process of scaling social change and social purpose organisations. What are the differences and similarities between accelerating an organisation for social impact and accelerating it for profit? How do different types of non-profit organisations grow? Can models of funding and capacity-building be exported from the business world? Are there any negative effects associated with non-profit growth, and how might they be mitigated? How does an impact accelerator fit into the wider ecosystem of support and capacity-building for non-profit organisations? The objective of this research theme is to support the practice of the 100x Impact Accelerator, to develop theory and practice more widely about the scaling and growth of social purpose organisations, and to disseminate such learning to philanthropic foundations and other social investors. The particular focus is upon the non-profit organisations.