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The Fallacy of Programmatic Change: Why Some Non-Profits Failed During COVID-19

This is not an easy article to write as it could be viewed as a cynical, retrospective account written with the benefit of hindsight. In truth, it is more predictive - an ex post facto set of insights that has forced a change in the business of development across the globe.

This blog frames the insights of Eisenstat, Spector and Beer that purports that theories of change that rely on individuals adopting a new change "religion" are flawed and doomed for failure. This blog points to the scale at which that played out in the non-profit sector during Covid and how, if ignored, will generate momentum for a proverbial second wave.

Change management is hard, regardless of the sector or context. It requires will, leadership and a quite specific aptitude for impact-centred worldbuilding. The blunt force trauma of a global pandemic was more than many organisations (and leaders) could bear and the knee-jerking reactions affected the fate of thousands of development workers and hundreds of thousands of citizens.

The exact number of non-profits that shut down as a result of COVID-19 is difficult to determine, as data on non-profit closures is often limited and varies by location. However, according to a survey by Candid, a non-profit organization that provides data on non-profits, more than one-third of non-profit organizations worldwide reported that they were at risk of shutting down due to the pandemic's impact. Additionally, a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies estimated that up to 38% of non-profits in the United States could close as a result of the pandemic.

The fallacy of programmatic change is a prime example of how a misguided theory of change can hinder the success of an organization.

The common belief that changing individuals' attitudes and behavior will lead to organizational change is fundamentally flawed. Individual behavior is shaped by organizational roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Therefore, to change behavior effectively, organizations must create new contexts that impose new roles, responsibilities, and relationships on individuals. This creates a situation that channels new attitudes and behaviors in people.

The focus required for change during disruption is the understanding that individual behavior is powerfully shaped by the organizational roles that people play. The most effective way to change behavior, therefore, is to put people into a new organizational context, which imposes new roles, responsibilities, and relationships on them.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a new organizational context that non-profit organizations must adapt to. Many non-profit organizations have had to shift their programs and services to accommodate remote work, social distancing, and other pandemic-related restrictions. Organizations that were successful in adapting to the new context did so by creating new roles, responsibilities, and relationships that allowed them to deliver their services effectively.

For instance, organizations that adopted digital platforms to deliver their programs had to create new roles for staff responsible for managing the platforms and new responsibilities for staff delivering the programs online. Additionally, organizations had to create new relationships with their clients and stakeholders to ensure that their needs were being met in the new context.

Coordination or teamwork is crucial if organizations are to discover and act on cost, quality, and product development opportunities. The 'production' and 'sale' of innovative, high-quality, development programming and professional social investment services depend on close coordination among marketing, programming, and project management units, as well as between staff and management.

Non-profit organizations that failed to create new contexts that fostered coordination and teamwork may have struggled to identify and act on new opportunities presented by the pandemic.

This fallacy of programmatic change may have hindered non-profit organizations' ability to foster commitment, initiative, and cooperation among staff.

A pragmatic change process is fuelled by 3 pillars: Coordination, Commitment and Competencies.


Effective coordination or teamwork is crucial for organizations to identify and capitalize on opportunities. A true sense of coordinated efforts towards shared targets has a galvanising effect.


High levels of commitment are crucial for coordinated action, and for the effort, initiative, and cooperation that such action demands. This was particularly important while organizations were faced with challenging or uncertain circumstances, such as those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.


To work together as a team, individuals need to possess new competencies that enable them to identify and solve problems. These competencies include knowledge of the business of development as a whole, analytical skills, and interpersonal skills.

Non-profit organizations must adopt a new approach to change management if they are to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world. The key factors referenced that can contribute to successful organizational change in this context is a focus on coordination, competencies, and commitment.

It is crucial for non-profits to recognize the value of effective teamwork, continuous learning, and a shared sense of purpose to successfully navigate the uncertainties of today's world. Only by embracing these principles can non-profits hope to achieve sustained impact and continue making a difference in the lives of those they serve.

At GrowZA, we are committed to supporting social investors who are looking to make a positive impact in their communities. Through our Impact Accelerator and Think Tank services, we provide a range of tools and resources that can help non-profit stakeholders build the skills, knowledge, and relationships needed to thrive in the face of adversity.

This is how we #GrowZA


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