Jun 21 2023

In memory of David Billis (1934-2023)

David Billis was Emeritus Reader in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics (LSE). He was an organizational theorist whose work engaged with the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Influenced by Weber, he developed a distinctive approach to organizational analysis across three main dimensions: category (the type of work), level (the vertical dimension within the organizational hierarchy), and authority (the management role) to which he also added a conceptualization of individual capacities.

He began his career at Brunel University, where he wrote Welfare Bureaucracies (1984) and Organisational Design (1987), where he undertook collaborative action research with a range of social welfare agencies. He then went on to develop a theory of ‘work levels’, an approach which was adopted by multinational companies and implemented in over a hundred countries. However, it was his work on voluntary organizations for which he became best known. He joined the School in 1987, bringing an innovative voluntary/nonprofit sector management research and teaching agenda that he had started developing at Brunel.

As founder-director of the LSE’s Centre for Voluntary Organization (later the Centre for Civil Society) in the Department of Social Policy, he established a new MSc in Voluntary Sector Organization, which was the first specialised postgraduate course of its kind. His next book Organising Public and Voluntary Agencies (1993) set out a voluntary sector theory of change, which was influential in assisting organizations with navigating changing policy environments and dealing with the management challenges.

He co-founded the journal Nonprofit Management and Leadership in 1990, and in 1995 was awarded the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA). His 2010 book Hybrid Organisations and the Third Sector reflected further evolution of his ideas, and his chapter ‘Towards a theory of hybrid organizations’ was published in Shafritz, Ott and Jang’s Classics of Organisation Theory (2015). David Billis will be remembered by colleagues and students as a kind and approachable teacher, a dedicated scholar, and a passionate advocate for the voluntary sector.

Written by David Lewis

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3 Responses to In memory of David Billis (1934-2023)

  1. David Lewis says:

    A distinctive aspect of David’s approach to research was his problem-based approach and insistence on putting research users – those in voluntary organisations – first. Theory was only useful if it helped to address real world organisation-level challenges, and had to be developed with this purpose in mind. This approach was also at the heart of his teaching. It informed successive generations of students on the Voluntary Sector Organisation MSc, themselves practitioners, who carried these ideas back with them into the sector. This was always collaborative action research.

  2. Sam Brier says:

    David was tutor and supervisor for my PhD at LSE. He was a wise and supportive teacher, who taught me so much about the importance of structure and clarity in writing. His deep theoretical knowledge of the voluntary sector was informed by a profound admiration for those working in grass roots organisations. He had great personal charm, always ready with a wry smile but passionate in his insistence that we listen to real, grounded problems. He became a close friend and is a real loss to family and the academic community.

  3. Guevara Raul Diaz says:

    My condolence goes to David Billis family and colleagues at the LSE. We will surely miss him.

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