Deserving and Discretion: A View from the Front Lines of Nonprofit Organizations




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This qualitative study examines how discretion and deserving criteria were used by front line staff employed in nonprofit organizations that provided social service assistance to clients. Using Michael Lipsky’s (2010, 1980) study of street-level bureaucrats’ use of discretion and a framework of resource dependency Pfeffer and Salancik (1978), front line staff used their discretion and judgments about clients’ deservingness to provide services to a select group of clients. Seventeen interviews with frontline staff in four nonprofit organizations in a large southwestern state in the United States were conducted. The themes that emerged were deserving, non-deserving, discretion and non-discretion, the convergence of deserving and discretion and discretion, deserving and resource dependency. The findings suggest that client efforts, client needs and clients’ ability to build a relationship with the front line staff influenced their discretionary power to provide more services to “deserving” clients. Conversely, front line staff perceived clients who lacked effort or were noncompliant as undeserving and thus received limited assistance. The convergence of discretion and deserving decision factors occurred when front line staff perceived clients needed financial assistance and emotional support. The external revenue sources influenced front line staff use of discretion and deserving criteria in client decisions to waive client fees or negotiate with funders to revise the NPO performance measures. The study has three significant contributions to public administration. First, the study shows the convergence of discretion and deserving criteria in FLSs’ decision about clients. Second, FLS use a non-linear process of decision-making. This connection between discretion and deserving criteria by FLS links discretion from the public administration literature to deserving criteria in the social psychology literature as a means to further understand the human behavior and decision process of public administration actors. Third, the relationship FLS develop with their clients is the foundation of FLS’s use of discretion and deserving, which encourage front line staff to invest more effort in those clients, a key finding. The importance of this relationship between the FLS and the clients is not addressed in program or policy manuals nor in public administration literature. The insights from the study highlight the an area of future research that examines front line staff decision-making and its unintended impact on those clients most in need and the NPO mission.



Nonprofit organizations, Discretion, Community-based social services, Social advocacy, Decision making


©2019 Tracy L. Nicholson. All rights reserved.