Nonprofit human service organisations play a significant role in the operationalisation of social policy in the Australian welfare state. Participants and observers characterise the nonprofit human service sector, and its constituent organisations, as distinctive. Rather than engage in a comparative analysis of organisations in the sector with other organisations in other sectors, this study focuses on the conditions or contemporary experience of this group of organisations which give rise to such perceptions. To do so, the study assesses the capacity of theoretical formulations developed by nonprofit scholars and dedicated specifically to the nonprofit sector to sustain a broad reaching analysis, incorporating aspects of both organisational role and organisational behaviour. This requirement, described as adequacy of theoretical scope, is not met. Nevertheless, elements of two other bodies of organisational theory are invoked by two nonprofit theorists; population ecology, and neoinstitutional theory. These two bodies of theory are similarly assessed in terms of their adequacy to sustain the research project. Of the two, neoinstitutional theory was considered the most appropriate. In summary, it is proposed that nonprofit human service organisations are institutionalised organisations.
A series of propositions are drawn from neoinstitutional theory, and applied to the nonprofit human services sector in Queensland. Using a mixed method research strategy, data was generated from a survey of over two hundred organisations, interviews with employees, informants in peak organisations, informants in state finding bodies, and from organisational files held by the state regulatory authority. The validity of the propositions was explored by reference to the data. Overall, the data confirmed that these organisations may be regarded as institutionalised. However, the analysis also generated evidence that the institutional order of the sector is not stable. Reviewing these signals of change in the context of neoinstitutional theory, the thesis concludes that a framework drawn from it, and augmented by reference to other bodies of organisational theory, has both explanatory and predictive power. The thesis concludes that further research, adopting an augmented neoinstitutionally informed theoretical framework, has the capacity to fruitfully structure research into the contemporary experience of nonprofit human services organisations.