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Organizational Commitment Across Three Sectors: Public, Non-Profit, and For-Profit

Organizational Commitment Across Three Sectors: Public, Non-Profit, and For-Profit

Laurel R. Goulet & Margaret L. Frank / Entrepreneur

December 02, 2009

Non-profit, for profit, and public sector organizations differ from each other in mission and approach. The variety of differences between the sectors have been, and continue to be, the subject of a great deal of observation, discussion, research, and comment. (1) Distinct management disciplines exist which differentiate between public and private management. The term “third sector” has arisen to describe the non-profit sector and to stress its uniqueness when compared to the public and for-profit sectors. (2,3)

While many of the differences between the non-profit, for profit, and public sectors have been examined, for the most part, differences in the behaviors and motivations of individual employees have been neglected. This article describes research that examines the similarities and differences observed in individual employees’ levels of organizational commitment when comparing workplace sectors.

Previous research focusing on the identification of differences between non-profit, for-profit, and public sector organizations does not focus on the commitment of general employees. Specifically, organizational commitment has not been examined across the three sectors. In general, studies of organizational commitment focus on a single workplace setting—highlighting differences between categories of employees. This work is unique in that it addresses the research question: Are employees of one sector more committed to their respective organizations than employees of another sector?

The article composes literature on the differences between the sectors and organizational commitment. The following research involves an investigation of employee commitment in for-profit, not-for-profit, and public workplace settings.

Comparisons of the three sectors

Non-profit and public sector organizations exist both to serve and to create changes in both society and individuals. (4) During the 1980’s, the activities of non-profit organizations began to affect virtually all aspects of American society, (5) either through providing services, involvement in community, or volunteerism.

Though comparisons of employee behavior across sectors is limited in the literature, much has been written about other, broader differences between for-profit, not-for-profit, and public sectors. Comparisons among the sectors include differences in strategic and other management practices, (6) approaches to goal specification and assessment, (7,8) methods of performance measurement, (9,10) marketing and competitive practices, (11) and the responsibilities, activities and representation on boards of directors. (12) The few studies that have examined individual differences among the sectors have focused primarily on the differences between workers in public and private, for-profit enterprises, and have not included the non-profit sector. (13)

Three conceptual frameworks have been proposed as a means of comparing public and private sector organizations. (14) These are the generic, core, and dimensional frameworks.

The generic approach posits that there are virtually no differences between public and private organizations regarding organizational values and management functions and values. (15,16) The core approach suggests that, although some basic similarities exist, there are fundamental differences among the sectors. (17) It is in the core framework that individual employee differences are emphasized, although it is important to note that the majority of this work has been focused on public managers rather than on line staff. The dimensional approach focuses on the “publicness” of organizations along a continuum of “more public” (18) and less public" and suggests that the level of management attention to the organization as a public entity affects it in a variety of ways.

The literature, which examines the employees of non-profit organizations, is limited in its comparison with employee attitudes and behavior in profit-sector firms. As an example, The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, (19) a primer prepared for managers of non-profit organizations, relies on applying scholarly literature, which is based on research conducted in the for-profit sector for virtually all discussion concerning individual employees.

Organizational Commitment

Studies of organizational commitment among for-profit sector employees abound. The vast majority of research conducted on the topic of organizational commitment has examined the attitudes and behavior of employees of for-profit-sector workplaces. However, one of the seminal works on organizational commitment focused on health care workers in a non-profit organization. (20) Two more recent studies of organizational commitment in the non-profit and public sectors have focused on public service employees, (21) and mental health workers. (22)

Research on the topic of organizational commitment has been structured to describe the construct of organizational commitment in one of several ways. Organizational commitment can be conceived of as a pattern of behaviors, a set of behavioral intentions, a motivating force, or an attitude. (23), (24) The attitudinal approach, which is the most widely used, (25) views commitment as an attitude regarding the relationship between an employee and his/her workplace. (26,27)

Organizational commitment has been associated with influencing many organizational and behavioral outcomes. Most frequently, organizational commitment has been used to predict withdrawal behaviors (28) associated with workplace attendence. In a meta-analysis of 124 published studies, Mathieu & Zajac found that organizational commitment was positively correlated with job attendance and had a negative linear relationship to lateness and turnover. This finding supports the results of several other studies on withdrawal and organizational commitment. (29) On the basis of this work, one can conclude that an individual who is committed to an organization is more likely to remain at work. Because of the negative relationship between organizational commitment and observed withdrawal behaviors, workers with lower commitment levels may be expected to work fewer hours, on average, than their more committed counterparts in a given organization.

O’Reilly and Chatman (30) observed that organizationally committed individuals were more likely to exhibit organization-serving behaviors. These behaviors are those that directly or indirectly benefit the organization, the work unit, or some other worker. (31) If an employee works more hours on the job, he/she may be serving the organization, work group, or co-workers by that very action, regardless of the level of impact on the worker’s other performance measures. For example, a manager of a medical records department may stay late at the office for any number of work-related or non-work-related reasons. Even if the manager is not producing any measurable work results, he/she is available to co-workers to answer any medical records questions they may have, or to assist them with problems. Similarly, the manager’s presence may be a motivating factor to other staff members. In this way, the manager is helping the organization, the work group, and his/her subordinates.

When identifying the behaviors associated with high levels of organizational commitment, perhaps the most important category includes those behaviors associated with or demonstrating the willingness of the individual to exert considerable effort on behalf of the organization. (32) This willingness may be manifested in such commitment behaviors as working more hours than the organization formally requires or at times not typically associated with the job in question. If one is committed to the organization, and there is work that needs to be done, one would be inclined to stay to finish that work.

Additional hours worked has been used as a proxy measure of organizational commitment. Several researchers have employed commitment behaviors such as extra hours worked to understand employees’ organizational commitment attitudes. For example, Weiner and Gechman (33) collected data from employee diaries in which they recorded all work voluntarily done on personal time. These findings were summarized to approximate a measure of employee commitment. Kanter (34) describes total commitment in terms of “more than nine to five.”

Studies comparing the organizational commitment of workers in the public sector with that of employees in the private, for-profit sector have yielded mixed results. (35) Consequently, no definitive comparison of organizational commitment between these two sectors exits, eliciting calls for further empirical studies.


The research presented here is a cross-sectional survey of employees from 16 businesses and agencies representing for-profit businesses, nonprofit agencies, and public sector offices. Data collection activities took place between January and June 1995 and were overseen by managers or key workgroup members who took responsibility for distribution and collection of survey instruments. Questionnaires were completed on site and were sealed by each respondent to ensure individual confidentiality.


Questionnaires were distributed to 375 full-time employees. Of these, 228 responded, yielding a response rate of approximately 61%. One hundred-seventeen subjects (51%) were employed by for-profit entities, 66 (29%) by non-profit organizations, and 45 (20%) by public sector employers.

Thirty-eight percent of the sample were male (86), and 62% female (138). The majority, 74%, were married at the time of data collection, with 87.6% (148) of spouses working outside the home. Nearly 47% reported having dependent children at home and 9% were responsible for elder parents. Only 10% were without college training, 28% with some college, and 63% had completed college or graduate degrees.