Nonprofit Governance in times of Covid-19: should Organizations
change their Practices and Strategy in the Middle of a Crisis?
Research Institute in Management Science (Univ. Bordeaux, IRGO, EA 4190)
Bordeaux University, Bordeaux, France
Article published in the Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change
Accepted for publication on 13-Aug-2023
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial International Licence 4.0
(CC BY-NC 4.0).
Purpose: In the face of crises, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) have focused on their financial
viability but there are other operational aspects to consider (e.g., activity or volunteer
involvement). This article investigates whether governance changes made by NPOs in times of
crisis have enhanced organizational viability in a broader sense.
Design/methodology/approach: Through community-engaged research, the link between
governance changes and organizational viability is examined. This study is based on a survey
of 10,926 French NPOs and the conceptual framework of societal orientation.
Findings: They show that changing governance in the midst of a crisis can protect
organizational viability, if the beneficiaries and members remain the core of the strategic target
and if the content of volunteering remains stable.
Research limitations/implications: This article therefore calls for a better study of the risks of
governance changes for internal stakeholders, both at the level of scholars and within the
organizations themselves. The results extend recent works on governance change and highlight
the relevance of societal orientation in times of crisis.
Practical implications: This article helps to counter the criticisms regularly made about
governance (particularly in France) and highlights the importance of maintaining the board of
directors in NPOs. It invites NPOs to make decisions that protect their values, mission and
beneficiaries at all times.
Originality: This article focuses on societal orientation in relation to stakeholder theory, as well
as the non-financial aspects of viability.
Keywords: Covid-19 crisis – nonprofit board of directors – France – volunteer dependence –
governance change – societal orientation
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Jacques Malet, Cécile Bazin and Marie Duros
of Recherches & Solidarités for their kind provision of the Covid-19 survey database and their
support in the research process undertaken on the basis of this survey.
Conflict of Interest: The author is a board member and member of the expert committee of
Recherches & Solidarités, and receives no compensation.
Funding: This research was supported by the Institut Français du Monde Associatif which
funded the translation services associated with this article.
Data availability statement: The data that support the findings of this study are available from
Recherches & Solidarités.
If a crisis is defined as “a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability
of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution,
as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly” (Pearson and Clair, 1998, p. 3), then
the Covid-19 pandemic is a deep and widespread crisis affecting all socio-economic spheres.
The consequences of this crisis for organizations are extremely variable, within and
between types of organizations or sectors. In addition to their actions to restore their viability,
public, private, and nonprofit organizations have committed to fight the crisis. In particular, the
nonprofit sector has done its best to remain active and thus maintain a positive social impact on
its communities (e.g., Mion and Chiaramonte, 2022; Wang and Cheng, 2021).
Despite their best efforts, the crisis has almost wiped out the activity of many nonprofit
organizations (NPOs) and thus weakened their financial health (Herrero and Kraemer, 2022;
Hyndman, 2020). Consequently, the literature has first focused on the financial issues of these
organizations (e.g. Johnson et al., 2021). Similarly, most of the research linking governance
and Covid-19 has studied the financial aspects of governance (e.g. Cambrea et al., 2021;
Koutoupis et al., 2021).
Over and above the financial stakes, NPOs then had to manage the other effects of the
crisis, particularly on their activities and their human resources (Plaisance, 2022a; Searing et
al., 2021). There is a consensus in the recent literature that governance is one of the first levers
to be activated in order to manage these issues and be able to rebound (Esteves et al., 2023;
Huang, 2022; McMullin and Raggo, 2020). We already know that governance matters in crisis
management (Marx and Davis, 2012) and, in the case of the pandemic, good governance leads
to flexibility and adaptability (Plaisance, 2022a; Stötzer et al., 2022). However, there is little
evidence about the flexibility and adaptability strategies that leaders might follow to survive
The literature often discusses the behavior that should be adopted (Jebran and Chen,
2021): changing governance practices in times of crisis is generally relevant (Lin et al., 2006)
in order to protect organizational viability, but little is known in respect of NPOs. In addition,
governance is often described as underdeveloped in NPOs (Rowland and Gilbert, 2022; Zainon
et al., 2014), in particular because of the lack of means and the volunteerism of the leaders.
Finally, it has been badly affected by the crisis (Aulgur, 2022; McMullin and Raggo, 2020).
In sum, to protect the viability of NPOs during the crisis, these organizations need to
restore their activity and human resource engagement. How to do this remains unclear.
However, we know that it implies a major change in governance. This may seem complex
because change in times of crisis is uncertain, nonprofit governance is sometimes fragile due to
a lack of resources and time, and the crisis has disrupted this governance. This is the problem
that is investigated here. This article therefore seeks to determine whether NPOs have indeed
evolved their governance and whether these changes have protected organizational viability.
Thus, the research questions (RQ) of this article are:
RQ1: How did NPO governance and strategy change during the crisis?
RQ2: Did these changes impact organizational viability?
The main empirical findings of this study highlight the crucial importance of
maintaining collective governance in times of crisis, and the value of the strategic
recommendations of societal orientation in protecting viability. Societal orientation is indeed a
“organizational belief and culture that create and align behaviours for offering/delivering
services that are worthy of society, thus fulfilling the nonprofit organizational mission (focus)”
(Duque-Zuluaga and Schneider, 2008, p. 34) and is seen as a preservation strategy. This study
thus contributes to the literature by continuing the research effort on NPOs in times of
pandemic, but moves forward to look at the decisions made by NPOs to overcome the crisis. It
emphasizes a collective (and potentially informal) vision of governance, while proposing an
original strategic filter through societal orientation. Finally, in practice, this study urges NPOs
to avoid deprioritizing members and beneficiaries in favor of more material or financial issues.
Moreover, in a context of dependence on human capital, it would be ill-advised to upset the
This article first proposes a literature review on governance and societal orientation and
hypotheses are developed. The French context of the research and the methods are followed by
the results. Next is a discussion on the contributions of the research, followed by the conclusion.
2. Governance in NPOs: Developing Strategies to Protect and Enhance Viability
Broadly defined, organizational governance is the “system by which an organization
makes and implements decisions in pursuit of its objectives” (ISO, 2010). Nonprofit governance
is particularly focused on “overall direction, control and accountability” (Cornforth, 2014, p. 5;
Renz et al., 2023). In this, NPO governance is both formal and informal: governance
mechanisms are therefore structures and processes as well as values and the nonprofit culture.
This vision of governance explains why it is “mission-centered, overall performance-
driven and stakeholder-oriented” (Plaisance, 2022b, p. 27). In other words, the governance of
NPOs participates in the proper development of their performance (Bellante et al., 2018;
Blevins et al., 2022; Zainon et al., 2014), in particular because this is defined through the filter
of their mission. Ultimately, the short-term performance of an NPO is its viability, i.e. the ability
to maintain the NPO by guaranteeing “the acquisition of resources, the retention of membership
commitment, engagement in activities, and the attainment of goals after the organization has
been established” (Prestby and Wandersman, 1985, p. 289).
In other words, the link between governance and performance can also be applied to the
crisis context, as seen with Marx and Davis (2012). In the case of the pandemic, McMullin and
Raggo (2020) were the first to demonstrate that governance and leadership took into account
the context of the health crisis to protect NPOs, sometimes at the cost of profound changes. The
concept of resilience also highlights the importance of governance and leadership. In analyzing
the resilience of arts and cultural NPOs, Herrero and Kraemer (2022) mention their associated
capabilities, while Plaisance (2022c) emphasizes that governance difficulties prevented NPOs
from adapting to the crisis. Stötzer et al. (2022) expand on this by framing leaders and
governance as resilience mechanisms. More recently, Esteves et al. (2023) explore the role of
“crisis leadership competencies” in developing strategies to ensure the viability and
sustainability of NPOs. The present study builds on these references, while proposing to go
beyond the resilience approach to study strategies that could develop viability after the crisis.
It recognizes the role of leaders, but focuses on governance bodies and on a specific choice of
strategy, whose effects are tested.
Governance is therefore responsible for building a strategy that will allow the NPO to
overcome the crisis (Jebran and Chen, 2021), in line with its planning and decision-making
roles (ISO, 2010; Plaisance, 2022b). In particular, the board of directors should take new
directions (Mather, 2020; Zattoni and Pugliese, 2021) and try to adapt to maintain its own
activity and protect the organization’s viability (Janssen and van der Voort, 2020).
In this situation, viability and resilience are linked to the commitment of the stakeholders
who provide the resources (Prestby and Wandersman, 1985). Governance must ensure that
stakeholders are engaged with the NPO (Willems et al., 2017). Empirical studies also confirm
the importance of stakeholders in nonprofit governance: stakeholders are both controllers
(Zainon et al., 2014) and resource providers within relationships (Benevene and Cortini, 2010).
In short, stakeholders’ networks are at the heart of the nonprofit sector (Faulk et al., 2016). The
underlying basis for such an approach seems to be stakeholder theory, which has been widely
used to study the governance of NPOs (Andersson and Renz, 2021; Van Puyvelde et al., 2012).
3. Viability Strategy in Times of Crisis and Stakeholder Theory: towards Societal
Stakeholder theory focuses on individuals and groups that are in a position to influence
the organization or that the organization influences (Freeman et al., 2020). In this, stakeholder
theory causes a shift in nonprofit governance because members and beneficiaries are no longer
the only priority stakeholders. NPOs must also respond to societal demands and take into
account the expectations of all stakeholders (Andersson and Renz, 2021; Renz et al., 2023).
Stakeholder theory emphasizes that the board of directors and the managers have to arbitrate
between the stakeholders’ demands in order to obtain the resources essential to the survival of
the organization. The theory is divided into three parts. The first is descriptive, dealing with
how to take into account stakeholders for NPOs. The second is instrumental, highlighting the
effects of this consideration on performance, resilience or viability. The third is normative,
related to ethics and stakeholders’ well-being.
The stakeholder theory is associated with a specific strategy, called “stakeholder
orientation”. It is defined as “the organizational culture and behaviors that induce organizational
members to be continuously aware of and proactively act on a variety of stakeholder issues”
(Ferrell et al., 2010, p. 93). However, this “variety” echoes a normative vision and, as such, an
ideal approach to stakeholder management. In times of crisis, it is more difficult for NPOs to
manage the majority of stakeholder demands. A more instrumental approach seems
A narrower strategy has already been conceptualized, precisely to preserve the
organizations that would adopt it (Liao et al., 2001). It is called societal orientation, as defined
in the introduction (Duque-Zuluaga and Schneider, 2008, p. 34) and is an approach focused on
a few stakeholders which, according to the instrumental vision of the stakeholder theory, would
allow the organization to protect itself and develop (Modi, 2012; Padanyi and Gainer, 2004). It
then proposes a very precise list of actions to be implemented: (1) developing relationships with
partners (i.e., organizations with which the NPO already has strong ties) and funders (including
donors), (2) focusing on members and beneficiaries, as they are the target of NPOs, (3) ensuring
organizational learning, and (4) mobilizing volunteers.
Societal orientation thus differs from a normative, democratic approach, in which all
stakeholders must be taken into account. As a preservation strategy, it focuses on the heart of
the NPO and only on specific stakeholders. It also differs from the strategies associated with
resilience. For Searing et al. (2021), the focus should be on financial and human resources,
outreach, leadership and daily operations, when Fyffe (2014)’s vision on medium-term
resilience is focused on restoration and recovery before transformation. In short, the resilience
approach is based on markets (in particular the capture and allocation of resources) and is
motivated by the satisfaction of beneficiaries and providers of resources. This is because
resilience is an organisational reflection. By contrast, the societal orientation proposes to go
further and is about the well-being of beneficiaries and society, beyond satisfaction (Sargeant
et al., 2002). This orientation therefore focuses on the accomplishment of societal needs, to the
detriment, if necessary, of activity (and, in this, meeting the needs of beneficiaries). The social
links created between members and beneficiaries thanks to NPOs (Plaisance, 2021), their civic
role in politicisation (Pope et al., 2018), their leadership in social innovation (Duque-Zuluaga
and Schneider, 2008) are some examples of the societal roles of NPOs that go beyond the
beneficiaries’ needs. This is what authors interested in societal orientation call responsiveness,
defined as “the extent to which the organization is capable of developing a rapid response to
changing patterns of societal need” (Sargeant et al., 2002, p. 52). In other words, in practice,
whereas a strategy based on resilience primarily seeks to relaunch the activity and the
organisation, the societal orientation captures the societal issues of the moment, tries to
anticipate the needs of beneficiaries, of members and of the broad community, and prioritises
them over an operational recovery. To achieve this, the societal orientation prescribes some
practices: collaborations, such as the resilience vision, but with the idea of obtaining a “mutual
exchange of values, ideas and a sense of identity” (Sargeant et al., 2002, p. 57), and “learning
and social entrepreneurship”, which means that organisational learning must be at the service
of creating societal value, and that risks must be taken, even in turbulent times (Duque-Zuluaga
and Schneider, 2008, pp. 35–36).
Adopting societal orientation in the event of a health crisis would thus lead to four
differentiated strategies (in line with Stötzer et al., 2022). First, NPOs need their partners more:
strengthening links with them seems essential (Zhang et al., 2020). Second, NPOs must remain
as close as possible to the interests of their beneficiaries and members in order to help them get
through the crisis and thus ensure their societal role (Calderón-Valencia, 2022). Third, NPOs
can seize the opportunity offered by the crisis to improve their daily operations (Zattoni and
Pugliese, 2021). This requires the adaptation of management and governance practices as well
as the use of remote digital tools in the specific case of a pandemic (Chui, 2022; Jones, 2021;
Lee-Geiller and Lee, 2022). Finally, because of their dependence on their volunteers in times
of crisis (Lee et al., 2023), NPOs have to change the content of daily tasks and the format (e.g.,
duration, location, team, less flexible management) of their human resource activities (Kuenzi
et al., 2021).
4. Hypothesis Development
The following hypotheses are intended to answer research question RQ2, which asked
about the effect of governance and strategy changes on viability. The role of governance in
getting through a crisis is already well known, but the aim here is to go a step further and
emphasize that good governance in times of crisis enables better decisions to be made (Gee et
al., 2023). The board indeed has the capacity to collectively make decisions and drive strategy
(Shumate et al., 2017). The adopted strategies are then a priori more appropriate for the NPO,
since they were adapted to the crisis context by its leaders (Esteves et al., 2023; Stötzer et al.,
2022). More specifically, the literature review highlighted societal orientation as a specific
strategy, useful in difficult or extreme contexts (such as a pandemic). It is crucial to manage the
challenges of sustainability (Mariani et al., 2022) but also to face the crisis. In the case of the
pandemic, immediately adopting a societal orientation helped to preserve activities (Plaisance,
2022d). Understanding whether societal orientation is still useful after the peak of the crisis has
passed is of interest now. In other words, do the positive effects persist over time? The following
hypotheses therefore address the effects of governance (H1) and the pillars of societal
orientation (H2) on viability, focusing on the medium term. The short term corresponds to the
months following the first pandemic wave (i.e. the peak of the crisis) and the medium term
(now used in the hypotheses) corresponds to approximately one year after the beginning of the
In NPOs, the board is the main governance body that concentrates powers and
responsibilities (Van Puyvelde et al., 2012). The instrumental approach of stakeholder theory
directly suggests that the leaders’ objective is to develop the different dimensions of
performance (here, in times of crisis, viability). In other words, the board of directors makes
decisions that will enable them to improve the NPO's situation. In addition, as indicated in the
literature review, governance is a bulwark against crises (McMullin and Raggo, 2020;
Plaisance, 2022d) and its contribution to organizational performance is well established
(Blevins et al., 2022). In this,
Hypothesis 1: In the medium term after the start of the pandemic, the collective
functioning of the board of directors tends to increase NPOs’ viability.
The first pillar of societal orientation refers to links with partners and funders. The
instrumental approach of stakeholder theory specifically emphasizes that getting closer to
resource providers secures access to resources and thus improves organizational viability
(Sacristán López de los Mozos et al., 2016). In addition, this kind of cooperation allows the
organization to be more efficient and sustainable (e.g. Nolte and Boenigk, 2011). In times of
crisis, the organizational capacity to absorb a shock and bounce back also depends on
mobilizing partners (Zhang et al., 2020). During the health crisis, the community thereby
played a role in the survival of NPOs (Osafo, 2021). In short, proximity to partners gives NPOs
access to a wider range of resources (both tangible and intangible), and thus enables them to
make better decisions and organize their operations more effectively. In this,
Hypothesis 2a: In the medium term after the start of the pandemic, strengthening
cooperation with partners tends to increase NPOs’ viability.
The second pillar of societal orientation focuses on beneficiaries and members. The
normative approach of stakeholder theory recalls that the core focus of NPOs remains these two
stakeholders. If an NPO is no longer able to stay focused on its beneficiaries and members, then
its activity no longer has an accurate purpose (Van Puyvelde et al., 2012). Moreover, the
viability of NPOs is defined by the “retention of membership commitment”, as members allow
the NPO to remain an active institution (Prestby and Wandersman, 1985). Even a crisis should
not affect the core of an NPO, otherwise it has no raison d’être. This is an integrity issue for
this sector (Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Beyond this normative vision only, paying less
attention to members and beneficiaries has negative effects: it sends a bad signal to
stakeholders, and it will be more costly to refocus on beneficiaries and members after the crisis.
In this, Hypothesis 2b: In the medium term after the start of the pandemic, keeping a strategy
focused on beneficiaries’ and members’ interests tends to increase NPOs’ viability.
The third pillar of societal orientation emphasizes organizational learning. An
instrumental approach to stakeholder theory emphasizes that organizational learning promotes
stakeholder engagement and trust. This would then bring more resources to NPOs, thus
protecting their viability. For instance, better management is well perceived by volunteers
(Hager and Brudney, 2011) and the quality of internal management explains an organization’s
capacity to forge stronger links with partners (Babiak and Thibault, 2009). In addition, crises
can be an opportunity to improve the quality of internal management and governance (Mano,
2010), including during a pandemic (Bhaskara and Filimonau, 2021). In this very specific
context of social distancing, part of organizational learning involved the use of digital tools
(Collings et al., 2021; Jones, 2021; NBA, 2021). In this,
Hypothesis 2c: In the medium term after the start of the pandemic, adopting new
management and governance practices (including digitalization) tends to increase NPOs’
Finally, the last pillar of societal orientation focuses on volunteer engagement. Again,
the instrumental approach of stakeholder theory highlights the contribution of volunteers to the
proper functioning of NPOs: they constitute a “critical human capital” (Henderson and Sowa,
2018). In times of crisis, organizations thus need a “healthy human capital” (Gelter and
Puaschunder, 2021). In this, modifying the content and the format of volunteering may be
unsatisfactory for some (Vantilborgh et al., 2011). Volunteers are indeed extremely sensitive
to ensuring that organizational values and culture are respected (Lee, 2016). Nevertheless, these
changes are intended to manage the crisis and to maintain the activities of the NPO (Raffo et
al., 2016). Flexibility and adaptability are indeed the keys to resilience (Plaisance, 2022c):
NPOs can reposition their human capital in critical positions to protect their survival during the
crisis. In this,
Hypothesis 2d: In the medium term after the start of the pandemic, changing the content
and format of volunteering tends to increase NPOs’ viability.
5. Data and Methods
5.1. Data and Approach
This study focuses on the case of France. French NPOs are primarily volunteer-based
organizations, set up as associations. The first reason for studying them is their importance for
French society. There are 1,500,000 NPOs and they can count on 12.5 million volunteers. Only
10% of NPOs are employers and they have 1.8 million employees (Bazin et al., 2022). Their
budget of 133 billion euros comes from public actors (44%) or from financial contributions by
beneficiaries (42%) (Tchernonog and Prouteau, 2019).
The second reason relates to the debates going on in the nonprofit sector in France. The
governance of French NPOs is understood as “a set of mechanisms that allow the organization’s
operations to be aligned with the objectives and values of the NPO’s project” (Hoarau and
Laville, 2008, p. 252). This rather internal approach was then complemented by a broader
vision: governance is the “mode of structuring relationships between stakeholders around a
collective project” (Chatelain-Ponroy et al., 2014, p. 220). Nevertheless, French NPOs
regularly question the relevance of the concept of governance and its associated mechanisms.
Current research attempts to respond to these concerns but is still in the early stages. In this,
studying the role of governance and associated strategies in times of crisis would help answer
The final reason for focusing on the French case is the voluntarism of the NPOs
themselves. The entire study presented here falls under the heading of community-engaged
research (CER), which is “research in any field that partners university scholarly resources with
those in the public and private sectors to enrich knowledge, address and help solve critical
societal issues, and contribute to the public good” (Stanton, 2008, p. 20). In other words,
scientific research relies on and works directly with practitioners and NPOs.
In the present case, the scientific community was involved in the reflections of private
and public actors to study the consequences of the health crisis for French NPOs. The socio-
economic role of French NPOs has indeed led the public authorities to encourage studies that
allow the effects of the crisis to be analyzed. Recherches & Solidarités, a network of experts
and academics, the National Network of Associations Houses (Réseau National des Maisons
des Associations), Le Mouvement Associatif, a French NPO federation, and the Department of
Youth, Popular Education and Voluntary Associations of the Ministry of National Education
and Youth came together. In consultation with scholars on the Recherches & Solidarités board
of directors and committee of experts, the questionnaire was constructed by the public and
This questionnaire was disseminated from March 30 to April 30, 2021 in the national
networks of the various nonprofit actors mentioned above, with no explicit target being set.
10,926 NPO leaders’ points of view were obtained. The data from this questionnaire were then
used to conduct the present scientific study. In other words, practitioners and public authorities
were the final decision-makers in choosing the questions, the response modalities and the
dissemination of the survey (see Table I). Thus, the researchers did not have the opportunity to
choose the precise wording or even the target of the study. According to the CER approach, this
apparent methodological limitation can be overlooked due to the interest of the survey for
society (a CER usually focuses on contributions to the community), the legitimacy of the actors
who initiated the survey and the willingness of these actors to involve the researchers in their
reflection (Touboulic et al., 2020). This approach filled the gap opened in the introduction by
opening the reflection to non-financial aspects: the research focused on the financial aspects of
NPOs, simply because these are generally the only data available (Berkovich and Searing,
2021). The NPO sector, number of employees and annual income are presented in Table II.
The data largely focus on the sports, cultural and leisure sectors, the three main sectors in
France. Large NPOs account for the majority of the data. This bias means that care should be
taken in the interpretation of the results: they are only valid for NPOs with significant financial
and human resources. However, governance changes are easier to implement in NPOs with
means and these sectors have the most structured governance. This is why these NPOs in
particular felt concerned by the survey.
[Tables I and II here]
5.2. Variables and Methods
As indicated in Table I, the different concepts of this study (governance, societal
orientation and viability) are studied through the filter of binary or ordinal variables from the
survey established by the actors mentioned above.
Three dependent variables were selected to study organizational viability (in line with
Besel et al., 2011; Weerawardena et al., 2010). They are all ordinal (Table Ia): MAIN_ACT
indicated the extent to which NPOs’ activity had been maintained, GEN_SIT is about their
assessment of their general situation and VOL_SIT assesses their situation with regard to
volunteering. For French NPOs, relying mainly on volunteers, the availability of volunteers is
indeed a viability issue.
To test the five hypotheses, the independent variables (Table Ib) are structured around
the board of directors and the four pillars of societal orientation (following Duque-Zuluaga and
Schneider, 2008; Plaisance, 2022c). First, GOV is an ordinal variable and analyzes the
operation status of the board of directors one year after the beginning of the crisis: is the
collective nature of governance preserved? Second, the partners and funders pillar is tested
directly by a binary variable about the strengthening of cooperation with partners (COP). Third,
the importance of the focus on members and beneficiaries is studied through an inverted binary
variable: BEN studies the case where the NPO temporarily deprioritizes these stakeholders.
Fourth, two binary variables illustrate organizational learning: REF, which focuses on new
management and governance practices, and NUM, which focuses on digitalization. Finally, two
binary variables focus on volunteers: VOL_CON, which studies the change in the content of
volunteering, and VOL_REL, which is interested in the format of volunteering.
The descriptive statistics are shown in Table III and will be studied in the next section.
The correlation matrix (Table IV) does not indicate any specific problems. However, the
significant correlations between the three independent variables must be considered. They can
be explained by the meaning given to the variables: GEN_SIT in fact includes operational
(MAIN_ACT) and human (VOL_SIT) issues, while the dependence of French NPOs on their
volunteers implies that a recovery of activity is synonymous with the volunteers’ commitment.
To test the hypotheses, three multiple logistic regressions are used (Table Va). Each ordinal
regression on the three viability indicators is in fact the combination of specific binary
regressions and follows this equation:
• n is the total number of modalities for the ordinal variables and i is the item number of the
• If 1 < i < n, Pr(Viability variable at the modality i) = 1 / (1 + exp (–(constanti + B1 ×
GOV-4 + B2 × GOV-3 + B3 × GOV-2 + B4 × COP + B5 × BEN + B6 × REF + B7 × NUM
+ B8 × VOL_CON + B9 × VOL_REL))).
• If i = n, Pr(Viability variable at the modality i) = 1 – 1 / (1 + exp (–(constanti + B1 × GOV-
4 + B2 × GOV-3 + B3 × GOV-2 + B4 × COP + B5 × BEN + B6 × REF + B7 × NUM + B8
× VOL_CON + B9 × VOL_REL))).
All three are significant and the Nagelkerke R² are all above 11%.
6.1. Descriptive Statistics: answering RQ1
The descriptive statistics (Table III) answer the research question RQ1, about changes
introduced by NPOs, and provide insight into the state of French NPOs after one year of crisis.
The governance of these NPOs has returned to its normal level for one third of the
organizations, while decisions have been collectively made in almost 60% of the NPOs.
However, 12% have serious difficulties in convening governance bodies. Changes in
governance and strategy have been made in many NPOs: one in two has adopted digital tools,
45% have reformed their internal management, and 37% defocused from beneficiaries and
members. 32% have changed the volunteering format and 24% have adapted its content.
Finally, 15% have sought cooperation with local stakeholders.
The viability of NPOs is still fragile. 40% of NPOs have maintained less than 20% of
their activity, while for 58% this figure is less than 40%. The MAIN_ACT variable shows that
only 15% of NPOs have returned to some form of normalcy. The GEN_SIT variable shows that
72% of NPOs declare that they are in difficulty. For 64% of NPOs, the problem is volunteerism,
according the VOL_SIT variable.
[Tables III and IV here]
6.2. Findings from the regressions: answering RQ2
This section is based on the results obtained from logistic regressions and robustness
checks (Tables V). The latter are mentioned only if they add nuance to the logistic regressions.
The ability of NPOs to redevelop their activity (MAIN_ACT) relies above all on
collective and committed governance (B = 0.96, p<0.001). Organizational learning also allows
NPOs to recover, either by improving their management practices or by digitizing their
processes. Getting closer to partners also boosts activity (B = 0.38; p<0.001). Adaptations of
the volunteering format and content are beneficial but have a more marginal effect compared
to the other pillars of societal orientation. Finally, turning away from beneficiaries and members
is a strategic error that prevents NPOs from maintaining their activity (B = –0.16; p<0.001).
The more global assessment of the NPO’s situation is again supported by the activity of
the board of directors. Organizational learning is also a crucial determinant, this time at the
same level as the development of relationships with partners and funders (B = 0.38; p<0.001).
Only adapting the volunteering format improves the NPO’s situation (B = 0.17; p<0.001). The
lack of effect of changing the volunteering content is congruent with the strong negative effect
of deprioritizing beneficiaries and members (B = –0.27, p<0.001): the overall situation of an
NPO is primarily based on the achievement of its missions and values. The content of
volunteering is therefore at the service of the beneficiaries.
Finally, the situation with regard to volunteers is mainly explained by the collective
functioning of the board of directors. The regression shows very well that this is the main
determinant of VOL_SIT. The ability of the NPO to adapt its managerial practices also has a
positive effect on VOL_SIT (B = 0.21; p<0.001), and changes in the format of volunteering
serve the interest of the organization too (B = 0.21; p<0.001). The positive effects of getting
closer to partners or of digitization are found, but are more marginal. Finally, deviating from
the organizational mission worsens the situation of NPOs with regard to their volunteers: NPOs
must avoid temporarily disconnecting from beneficiaries and members (B = –0.11; p<0.01) or
modifying the content of volunteering (B = –0.15; p<0.01).
Two robustness tests are also proposed: a Gamma regression (GLM, Table Vb) and a
dichotomous-around-the-median test (Bloem and Oswald, 2022, Table Vc). Two observations
can be made about the first robustness test. Firstly, Gamma regressions emphasize the
primordial role of governance in explaining the dependent variables. Secondly, societal
orientation has a greater impact on activity maintenance than on the other dependent variables
(with regard to the obtained coefficients). The second robustness test, which transforms ordinal
variables into binary variables, is in line with the results. However, a few nuances should be
noted. Firstly, the effect of the BEN variable on activity maintenance is lost when the median
is in the upper category. Secondly, the effect of the COP, BEN and VOL_CON variables on
volunteer situation is also lost when the median is in the upper category. Finally, when the
median is in the lower category, the NUM variable is no longer significant in explaining
volunteer situation. By transforming an ordinal variable into a binary one, information is
naturally lost. The quality of the other results reinforces the empirical findings already
[Table V here]
The empirical results described above provide an update on the state of the hypotheses
and thus answer RQ2. Hypotheses 1, 2a, 2b and 2c are validated without any reservation (since
the BEN variable was reversed, negative regression coefficients validate hypothesis 2b).
Hypothesis 2d, on the other hand, needs to be tempered. A priori, change in the format of
volunteering has positive effects on the viability of NPOs. By contrast, changing the content of
volunteering has only a minimal effect on activity, but profoundly affects the situation of the
NPO with regard to its volunteers. It may not be worth the effort.
This study thus contributes to two debates that have emerged during the crisis, since
they were put forward by the authors of the questionnaire. First, is it relevant to temporarily de-
prioritize members and beneficiaries? 37% of NPOs have made this choice, but it had no
positive effect on them. The results illustrate the analysis of Schubert and Willems (2021), who
showed that stakeholders who are crucial to the mission but have little power (such as
beneficiaries) are far too much neglected in NPOs’ current strategic methods. Member- and
beneficiary-centered democracy remains at the core of NPOs and, in times of crisis, building
resilience is about achieving missions and protecting values (Plaisance, 2022a; Stötzer et al.,
2022). Second, should the volunteering context be modified? The expected benefit to viability
is moderate but the cost to the relationship with volunteers is high. Some NPOs in France have
decided to make this change (32% changing format and 24% changing content). At the same
time, 64% have problems with volunteerism. This study points to a vicious cycle in which the
lack of volunteers leads to the disruption of the current volunteers’ lives as they try to fill the
gaps, which in turn worsens the situation (in the case of a change in content). As already seen,
volunteers are critical stakeholders, without whom NPOs cannot function (Henderson and
Sowa, 2018). This article therefore argues against abrupt volunteering content changes that are
solely focused on viability (and consequently nuances the findings of Stötzer et al., 2022).
In addition to these two discussions, there are other contributions to the literature and
theory. The definition of governance proposed by the ISO (2010) finds an echo here in the
balance between formality and informality. Among the changes proposed by societal
orientation, some are based on changes in relationships. A subjective and emotional approach
is thus necessary to manage a crisis (Stötzer et al., 2022). The feelings of both internal and
external stakeholders must be taken into account in order to deal with the crisis, but without
sacrificing the mission. Beyond that, this implies building a strategy through the filter of
stakeholders, in particular it depends on the ability of governance to negotiate with them and to
manage interdependencies (Plaisance, 2022a). Such governance would address the problem of
lack of information in times of crisis, as good information allows resources to be allocated
appropriately (Cutt et al., 1996).
The concept of viability is also discussed in this study. It is contextual (Stötzer et al.,
2022), while the definition of Prestby and Wandersman (1985) would benefit from being
enriched by (1) the retention of stakeholder commitment, trust and satisfaction (in line with
COP and Esteves et al., 2023; Plaisance, 2022a), (2) the collective nature of governance (in line
with GOV), and (3) the capacity to adapt and evolve (in line with REF and NUM). Volunteers,
beneficiaries and members are already included in the initial definition. This research also
connects the concept of viability with that of resilience: protecting the former is a starting point
for the latter.
Furthermore, this study reconciles the instrumental and normative approaches to
stakeholder theory. Hypothesis 2b, which is based on the normative view, is supported, but
beyond that, Hypothesis 2d is tempered. Even if, instrumentally, it was necessary to change
volunteering, in terms of ethics and values, this is not desirable. Beyond that, this reconciliation
is found within societal orientation, which combines a narrow view of stakeholders with the
prominence of beneficiaries and members. In addition, the findings support societal orientation
as a relevant strategic guide in times of crisis. Results were positive in the short term (Plaisance,
2022d), and one year later, in the spring of 2021, they were also successful.
The practitioner and societal contributions in this study focus first on the persistent
distrust of governance arrangements. The results show how the collective operation of the board
is essential, but also that values and missions should never be sidelined. This argument is key
to countering criticism of the implementation of governance mechanisms in the nonprofit
sector. However, a lesson must be learned from the negative effects of changes in volunteering
content as well as the harmful nature of changes related to members and beneficiaries:
democracy within NPOs remains paramount and such radical decisions must be made in
consultation and consensus with all of the organization’s internal stakeholders.
The findings have also enabled us to establish some “optimal governance arrangements”
(Musawir et al., 2020) in the context of the current crisis. In other words, beyond the reports
published by the authors of the survey (Le Mouvement Associatif et al., 2021), the analyses
conducted here produce new data for the federations, networks and all the actors who surround
and advise French NPOs. They remind us that NPOs must adopt their own practices of change
and innovation (Hull and Lio, 2006). Finally, while NPOs are naturally oriented towards
society, this study highlights the importance of a societal orientation (as defined by its four
pillars) in order to weather crises (and avoid defocusing from the core of the mission) but also
to guide NPO strategy.
This article discussed changes in nonprofit governance in times of crisis. It looked at the
effects of maintaining collective activity within the board and the effects of the four pillars of
societal orientation governance changes on organizational viability. The survey focused on
French NPOs through a large questionnaire and points out that many NPOs have been making
changes and that these changes (related to societal orientation) are favorable to the viability of
NPOs, except in the case of beneficiaries and members. There are also nuances to the changes
in volunteer content.
In this, the findings extend Jebran and Chen’s (2021) analysis in the NPO context. As
with firms, restructuring and changes in governance produce positive effects in specific
circumstances. It is therefore possible to complete the authors’ statement: “governance changes
can only benefit [NPOs] if they assess both internal and external environments” (p. 5) and if
the NPOs’ core values, mission and human capital are respected and taken into account (in
line with Plaisance, 2022a; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). NPOs should therefore avoid
applying standardized governance changes (based on best practices) or changes that are ill-
suited to the organizational and nonprofit contexts.
Finally, there are several limitations. First of all, the methodology has weaknesses: the
database imposed the questions asked and the answers proposed. Thus, the governance
evolution studied is only partial. The absence of verbatims and financial indicators is also
regrettable and they should be added in future studies. Reputation, accountability and credibility
are also qualitative characteristics of interest (Esteves et al., 2023). In addition, understanding
the determinants of governance changes in times of crisis is an important research avenue.
The results also question the balance of changes between the internal and external. The
call for external partners is crucial to protect viability, as are the profound changes in
management processes. It is therefore important to determine now whether these changes are
carried out to satisfy and attract external stakeholders or for the NPO’s own good. More
globally, this research joins the avenues of reflection proposed by Kunisch et al. (2021)
discussing short-, medium- and long-term changes as well as their temporary or definitive
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Table I. Variables included in this study and associated survey questions
Table Ia. Dependent variables about organizational viability
Dimensions of the concept of
Question in the survey
Assessment of the level of activity
At the moment, in terms of your usual activities, to what
extent are you able to maintain the activity of your
Less than 20%
From 20% to 40%
From 40% to 60%
From 60% to 80%
From 80% to 100%
More than 100%
(i.e., a rise in
Assessment of the NPO’s overall
How do you judge the general situation of your organization
(e.g., actions, missions, projects) since the beginning of the
Evaluation of the NPO’s situation
with respect to its volunteer human
How do you judge the situation of your organization with
respect to volunteers (e.g., number, availability, know-how...)
since the beginning of the year 2021?
Source: Table created by author.
Table Ib. Independent variables
Concepts tested as
determinants of viability
Dimensions of the
Question in the survey
Operational status of
Today, your governing
team (board of directors)
Collectively and satisfactorily
Collectively but with some difficulties
Only with some of the leaders
I sometimes feel a bit lonely
Has this year of crisis led
you to rethink the general
functioning of your
organization, at least
We have strengthened our
cooperation with the other actors
in the area (communities,
companies, other NPOs, etc.)
We have temporarily reviewed
our relationships with our
We have adopted new practices
and new ways of doing things
(organization, governance, etc.)
We have put in place digital
tools to work or keep in touch
from a distance
Changing the content
of the volunteers’
The need to adapt and redefine
some volunteers’ activities
Changing the format
team, less flexible
What are the difficulties
linked to the crisis that
have had the greatest
impact on volunteering in
We have adapted our
relationships with volunteers
Source: Table created by author.
Table II. Characteristics of NPOs in the data
% in the data
% in French NPOs
Tchernonog & Prouteau,
Medical and social housing
Number of employees
1 or 2
< 5: 7.8%
3 to 5
6 to 9
5 to 9: 2.1%
10 to 19
20 to 49
More than 50
< 10 k€
10 k€ – 50 k€
50 k€ – 100 k€
100 k€ – 200 k€
200 k€ – 500 k€
500 k€ – 1,000 k€
More than 1,000 k€
Source: Table created by author.
Table III. Descriptive statistics
Mean or frequency
DEPENDANT VARIABLES: Organizational viability
Less than 20%: 39.92%
From 20% to 40%: 17.65%
From 40% to 60%: 15.17%
From 60% to 80%: 12.46%
From 80% to 100%: 11.23%
More than 100% (i.e., a rise in activity): 3.57%
Very difficult: 18.95%
Very good: 1.91%
Very difficult: 15.88%
Very good: 3.87%
INDEPENDANT VARIABLES: Governance and societal orientation
Collectively and satisfactorily: 33.86%
Collectively but with some difficulties: 25.55%
Only with some of the leaders: 28.76%
I sometimes feel a bit lonely: 11.83%
Source: Table created by author.
Table IV. Correlation matrix
Source: Table created by author.
Lecture: ***: p < 0.001; **: p < 0.01; *: p < 0.05.
Tables Va, b and c. Empirical results
Table Va. Logistic regressions conducted on organizational viability
Source: Table created by author.
Lecture: ***: p < 0.001; **: p < 0.01; *: p < 0.05 ; ^ : p < 0.10. B : regression coefficients; SE:
standard error. The GOV-1 modality is the reference one and corresponds to the situation “I
sometimes feel a bit lonely”.
Table Vb. First robustness check (Gamma regression – GLM)
Source: Table created by author.
Lecture: ***: p < 0.001; **: p < 0.01; *: p < 0.05 ; ^ : p < 0.10. B : regression coefficients; SE:
standard error. The GOV-1 modality is the reference one and corresponds to the situation “I
sometimes feel a bit lonely”.
Table Vc. Second robustness check (dichotomous-around-the-median test)
Source: Table created by author.
Lecture: ***: p < 0.001; **: p < 0.01; *: p < 0.05 ; ^ : p < 0.10. B : regression coefficients; SE: standard error. The GOV-1 modality is the reference
one and corresponds to the situation “I sometimes feel a bit lonely”.
Nota: This robustness check is proposed by Bloem and Oswald (2022). In order to construct the new binary variables, their method was followed:
“For each application, we first calculate the median of the ordinal dependent variable. One complication is that many statistical distributions are
asymmetric, so that the median can lie within an answer category. Thus, for completeness, we construct two dichotomous variables. The first
includes the median value within the “upper” category, and the second includes the median value within the “lower” category” (p. 698).