In search of the non-profit sector. I: The question of definitions

Lester M. Salamon, Helmut K. Anheier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

236 Scopus citations


In this paper we argue that the lack of attention to the third sector historically is primarily a result of the weakness and limitations of the concepts that are used to define and describe it. The purpose of this article is to remedy this situation by developing a general definition of the sector that can be used in comparative research. To do so, the article first identifies four alternative types of definitions that are potentially available and evaluates each in terms of three basic criteria. On this basis it concludes that the most useful definition is the 'structural/operational' one, which includes in the non-profit sector organisations that share five basic characteristics. These are: formal, private, non-profit-distributing, self-governing and voluntary. The basic definition is then tested against the realities of three disparate countries and found to perform quite well. On this basis we recommend the structural/operational definition, particularly for comparative, crossnational research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-151
Number of pages27
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 1 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Strategy and Management


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