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David Billis: Hybrid Organizations and the Third Sector: Challenges for Practice, Theory and Policy

Andrea Bassi
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  • Department of Sociology, University of Bologna, Strada Maggiore, 45, Bologna 40125, Italy
  • School of Economics, University of Bologna, Piazzale della Vittoria 15, Forlì 47121, Italy
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Published Online: 2014-03-20 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2014-0015

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Hybrid Organizations and the Third Sector: Challenges for Practice, Theory and Policy, David Billis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 256, £19.00 (paperback)

When this book was published in 2010, the terms hybrid and hybridization did not have a common and widespread definition in the scientific community of the social sciences, although several were proposed (Powell 1987; Brandsen, van de Donk, and Putters 2005; Evers 2005; Brandsen, Karré, and Helderman 2009). The authors of Hybrid Organizations and the Third Sector recognize that there are many possible area of hybridization among organizations belonging to the three main sectors of society: public, private (for profit), and the third sector; editor and contributing author David Billis affirms that one of the goals of this book is to go beyond a vague description of the hybridization phenomena as “the blurring of the boundaries of the three sectors” by offering the following definition: a hybrid organization is an organization that “possesses significant characteristics of more than one sector” (p. 3). The main focus of the book, however, is the “role of hybrid organizations in the third sector” (p. 3).

But why is there an urgent need to study and develop an analytical framework to illuminate these new organizational forms? The authors provide many arguments, based on empirical case studies, showing that the recent reforms in the field of welfare policy (the New Public Management, the Third Way, and the Big Society) exert pressure toward the mixing and the blurring of traditional “pure” forms of organization, such as bureau, firm, and association. Further, these pressures occur on many levels: ownership, governance, human resources management, economic and financial resources, and so forth.

What are the origins of the hybrid concept? The term came from the Latin word hybrida, meaning “a crossbred animal” or “the offspring of a mixed union”. There are also numerous other definitions of hybrid from different disciplines:

  • 1.

    (Biology) an animal or plant resulting from a cross between genetically unlike individuals. Hybrids between different species are usually sterile;

  • 2.

    (Genetics) the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock, especially the offspring produced by breeding plants or animals of different varieties, species, or races;

  • 3.

    (Chemistry) the mixing of atomic orbitals to form new orbitals suitable for bonding;

  • 4.

    (Linguistics) a word, part of which is derived from one language and part from another, such as monolingual, which has a prefix of Greek origin and a root of Latin origin.

The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company

The use of hybrid in the organization context is, therefore, a reasonable metaphor. It is not unusual that different scientific disciplines adopt and re-specify the concepts elaborated by others disciplines and scientific traditions (Merton 1965). Indeed the majority of advancement and improvement in the theoretical realm happens through the “graft” of terms and meanings born in one field of science and transferred into another one (Merton and Barber 1992). The success of “metaphorical thinking” in social sciences therefore is not surprising (Parry 2008). Indeed metaphors are widely used particularly in organizational theory and sociology of organizations (Morgan 1986, 1993), because of their capacity to synthesize in one sentence complex sets of characteristics and properties of a group (population) of organizations. An example in the field of management studies is the book The Music of Management (Young 2004), which utilizes the metaphor of “symphony orchestra” and “musical ensembles performances” in order to highlight the key management issues facing an organization (the book chapters are organized as a symphonic opera: prelude, first movement, second movement, … finale and coda).

Following this line of thought it is possible to find many examples of cross-fertilization, such as “isomorphism” (Powell and DiMaggio 1983), “autocatalysis” (Padgett and Powell 2011), and “resilience”, which are now “à la page” among the social sciences. We have also gained an entire set of analytical tools (epistemological, theoretical, and methodological) introduced by “systems theory” (such as system, environment, requisite variety, complexity, autopoiesis, and recursive) transferred from the natural to the social sciences.

My opinion is that the term hybrid (and hybridization) is one of these cross-border concepts able to “pollinate” to “fertilize” different fields of thought and to open new frontiers in the development of knowledge. Taking into account that the concepts of hybrid and hybridization refer to:

An organism that is the offspring of two parents that differ in one or more inheritable characteristics, especially the offspring of two different varieties of the same species or the offspring of two parents belonging to different species. In agriculture and animal husbandry, hybrids of different varieties and species are bred in order to combine the favorable characteristics of the parents. Hybrids often display hybrid vigor.

The mule, which is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, is an example of a hybrid. It is strong for its size and has better endurance and a longer useful lifespan than its parents. However, mules are sterile, as are many animals that are hybrids between two species.

The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2005by Houghton Mifflin Company
we can deduct two main characteristics of hybridism:
  • (a)

    first, hybrids present a mix of the positive features of each of the two species (or varieties of the same species) they derive from;

  • (b)

    second, hybrids are often sterile (they cannot reproduce themselves); they are not able to transmit their characteristics to succeeding generations.

Let now see how Billis applies the idea of hybrid to the realm of organizational studies and third sector organizations (TSOs). The book itself has a recursive structure. It is like a spiral, meaning that it starts from one point (Chapters 1 and 3), then it enlarges the analysis including different types of organizations and/or fields of activity (Chapters 5–11) and finally it returns to the center (starting point) of its reasoning (Chapter 12).

The book is organized in two parts. The first part deals with theoretical issues related to the nature of organizational hybridity and includes four chapters: the first and the third by David Billis outline the emergence of a theory of hybrid organizations; the second, written by Margaret Harris, analyzes the public and social policy environment within which TSOs operate; and the fourth, by Chris Cornforth and Roger Spear, focuses on the governance of hybrid organizations.

The second part includes seven chapters, each illustrating a case study of organizational hybridity: the involvement of volunteers both at the board and staff levels; faith-based organizations; community anchor organizations; social enterprises in the “work integration field”; partnerships; housing associations; and individuals working across sector boundaries. In the final chapter, Billis illustrates a typology of hybrid organizations testing the concepts introduced in the third chapter in light of the case studies presented in Chapters 5–11.

Some of the most important contributions of the text, in my opinion, are in Chapter 3. Here, Billis develops an analytical framework of the “hybrid organizational type”, a sort of Weberian ideal-type model (Weber 1978) recognized as such on page 48. The analytical framework is based on a “four cell scheme” deriving from the cross tabulation of two variables or criteria: (a) level of hybridity (shallow vs. entrenched) and (b) the degree of willingness in adopting the hybrid form (organic vs. enacted). The “shallow hybrid” is an organization in which the process of hybridization is very low, light, or superficial (modest form of hybridity, see page 59). Alternatively, an “entrenched hybrid” is an organization in which the process of hybridization is very profound, deep, and involves both the governance and operational levels of the organization (see page 59).

The second criterion concerns the act of founding the organization. The “organic hybrid” is an organization that is born as a pure, single sector type (public, private, and third sector) moving slowly, during its life-cycle, toward a more hybrid organizational form (resulting from the steady accumulation of external resources, see page 61). The “enacted hybrid”, in contrast, is an organization that from the beginning is established as a hybrid. Among the numerous collaborative mechanisms existing across sectors, such as partnerships, networks, and joint ventures, an enacted hybrid is commonly recognized as an independent, often legal, structure (see page 61).

Typology of “hybrid organizations” (my elaboration)

Billis identifies five core structural elements present in each type of organization (public, private, and third sector): ownership, governance, operational priorities, human resources, and other resources (see page 49). Each sector of society applies different principles for each of these core elements, leading to an organizational “ideal-type” for each sector. The author suggests that a hybridization process occurs every time an organization – belonging to a specific sector – introduces in its operational procedures principles that derive from a different sector: for example, an Association introducing “governance” mechanisms typical of a Firm; or a Bureau involving “human resources” typical of an Association; or a Firm obtaining “other resources” that are typical of an Association; and so on.

Historically there are many examples of hybridization. What else was the cooperative movement in the last decades of the nineteenth century if not the “invention” of a new institutional (and legal) form of organization that put together the managerial principle of a firm with an associational type of governance? The owners of a cooperative are its members (who usually are the main stakeholders of the organization: consumer, worker, etc.), but the enterprise is essentially a private firm operating in a market and following the management principles of a business-like organization. Yet the decision-making process (governance) is organized in a democratic way (one person one vote) regardless of the amount of shares of the capital assets each single member owns.

Table 3.1

Ideal-type sectors and accountability (page 55)

After a period of sharp decline (‘20s and ‘30s of the twentieth century), cooperatives returned as a viable solution during reconstruction following the Second World War, especially in Europe. They became one of the main economic actors in several fields of activity including housing (housing cooperatives), credit (cooperative banks), health (mutual), retail market (consumer cooperatives), construction (construction worker cooperatives), agriculture (farmer cooperatives), and more. Then they experienced another period of decline during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, only to rise again in the first decade of the third millennium.

What lessons can we learn from these examples? It is very likely that hybrid organizations spring up in response to periods of crises (economic, political, social, etc.) when traditional solutions to broad social problems do not seem to address the challenges introduced by the new institutional environment. That is why they appear to be so “fashionable” after the 2008 financial crisis.

Revisiting our biological metaphor, what we can say about the two main characteristics of hybrids: (a) to be stronger than the “parents” and (b) to be “sterile”? I think that the seven case studies illustrated in the Billis book show that often hybrids are better able to adapt to turbulent environments than the two original (pure) organizational forms from which they originate. In addition, under some specific circumstances, they are even able to “fertilize” new institutional contexts and to “give birth” to new hybrid organizational forms. While some hybridizations may be unique, there are many examples of hybrid arrangements that have been able to replicate themselves successfully and to transmit their characters to the next generation of organizations.

Nevertheless Billis is aware of the fact that the process of hybridization is not good in itself and that we can have both “successful hybrids” and “monstrous hybrids” (see page 259). Indeed some forms of hybridization resemble more of a colonization process (business logic in a bureaucratic environment) than the merger on an equal basis of two organizational principles (association and firm). Billis mentions six possible consequences of a process of hybridization from a TSO point of view (see pages 252–4): erosion, emigration, infiltration, revitalization, conception, and termination. As the reader may appreciate, there are three positive results (emigration, revitalization, and conception) and three negative ones (erosion, infiltration, and termination).

Billis hypothesizes that nowadays we are facing a double movement from “shallow hybrid” to “entrenched hybrid” and from “organic hybrid” to “enacted hybrid” (see page 65). The consequences for nonprofit organizations and for the third sector as a whole are impossible to predict. But it is my opinion that the analytical framework and the case studies illustrated in this book are a first step in the right direction to produce the “antibodies” that can make TSOs able to face the hybridization challenge and avoid the risk of becoming “organizational Frankensteins”.

The book has several potential audiences. Members of the scientific community (scholars, researchers, and PhD students) can find many insights for their own theoretical and empirical research programs; practitioners in both the private and third sector (CEOs) and the public officials can find in the case studies presented here many ideas in order to improve the management of their own organizations.


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About the article

Published Online: 2014-03-20

Published in Print: 2014-10-01

Citation Information: Nonprofit Policy Forum, Volume 5, Issue 2, Pages 395–401, ISSN (Online) 2154-3348, ISSN (Print) 2194-6035, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2014-0015.

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©2014 by De Gruyter. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

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