Programming Change Among Nonprofit Human Service Organizations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Every several years, the human service sector equilibrium is punctuated with a crisis that impacts the sector (Alexander, Citation2000; Chen, Citation2022; Horvath et al., Citation2018; Lin & Wang, Citation2016; Never, Citation2011). In many ways, however, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic were unique (Dass et al., Citation2020; Kuenzi et al., Citation2021), being referred to as a “perfect storm” (Stewart et al., Citation2021) and a “black swan” event (Irvin & Furneaux, Citation2022). Indeed, the pandemic was unparalleled in its pervasiveness and intensity (Dass et al., Citation2020; Kuenzi et al., Citation2021; Shi et al., Citation2020), posing many challenges for nonprofit human service organizations (NHSOs) and their service populations (Vogel et al., Citation2022).

At a time when NHSO services were deeply needed, pandemic-related environmental changes altered both the supply and the demand sides of NHSO service provision (Ben-Ner & Hoomissen, Citation1993; Shi et al., Citation2020). On the supply side, NHSOs were faced with an uncertain and shifting funding environment. In many cases the pandemic had a dampening impact on funding, but there were some new opportunities such as the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and pandemic relief grants from foundations (Stewart et al., Citation2021). On the demand side, both the intensity and scale of client need were heightened due to worsening economic and social conditions (Shi et al., Citation2020). In response to these challenges, many NHSOs needed to change the very ways they delivered their programming and to develop new services (Newby & Branyon, Citation2021). When making decisions about programming change – including program addition, service population expansion, and program discontinuation – NHSO leaders had to carefully consider their available resources (Addison & Rubin, Citation2023) and the needs of the populations they serve (Vogel et al., Citation2022). To date, it is unclear how common or how meaningful NHSO programming change was during the pandemic and which factors were the most important considerations for organizational leaders as they enacted them. Therefore, in this study, we ask two research questions: first, what was the prevalence and perceived permanence of programming change among NHSOs in the wake of the pandemic; second, what factors are associated with programming change among NHSOs?

To answer these questions, we draw on data from a two-wave statewide survey of NHSOs asking about programming change during the first five months of the pandemic, as well as the NHSOs’ leaders’ perceived permanence of these changes. We describe the prevalence of the changes and investigate the contributing factors, including the role of organization size (Mosley et al., Citation2012), capacity (Barman & MacIndoe, Citation2012), new funding sources (MacIndoe, Citation2021; Never & de Leon, Citation2014), financial stability (Kim & Mason, Citation2020), and concerns for clients regarding disruptions to service and increased demand (Mion & Chiaramonte, Citation2022; Stewart et al., Citation2021). To assist in the interpretation of our results, we utilize the strategic change literature from the field of management (Müller & Kunisch, Citation2018). When programming change is theorized as strategic change, our findings have important implications for the future of the human service nonprofit sector. Research on strategic change tells us that environmental jolts, like the pandemic (M. Meyer et al., Citation2023), often lead to revolutionary shifts and leave an imprint on organizational fields (Dieleman, Citation2010; M. Meyer et al., Citation2019). If we want to understand the long-term impact of the pandemic on NHSOs, we can begin by combining the strategic change literature with data on initial programming change, especially when these changes were intended to outlast the pandemic.

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Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance