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Crises in NPOs - emergence, recognition and resolution

Initial considerations

NPOs, like other organisations, can be affected by crises in many different ways. So far, the topic has been underexposed in research regarding the German-speaking world, although it is likely to become more relevant. In times of tightening state budgets in the fields of activity of NPOs, resource crises can be assumed if demand increases at the same time. Whether the (missing) money is the only crisis driver remains to be investigated. The research project's journey will take in terms of content from the emergence and recognition of crises to their resolution. The main goal is to analyse whether the special organisational form of the nonprofit organisation differs in its crises from other organisations and what the difference is. This also includes the respective environment in which the NPOs are active and which usually has its own specifics.


Starting points for crises can be due, for example, to problems in resource endowment (e.g. financing, competencies and motivation of staff), in structures (e.g. portfolio, regional focus, start-up orientation) or supervision and management (e.g. coordination processes, unclear distribution of competencies), in the environment (e.g. industry upheavals, changed regulatory framework conditions), in demand (e.g. increased demand for the same resources) or in competition (e.g. better solutions to the problem, market entries). NPOs have special characteristics and features that distinguish them from profit-oriented or purely market-oriented companies or governmental organisations.


The earliest possible recognition of crises or situations that could potentially lead to crises is essential in the management of any organisation. Risk management has now become a matter of course in large organisations. In NPOs however it is less common and especially in smaller and medium-sized organisations there is hardly any structured dealing with the topic. Due to the mission-driven objectives of NPOs, which are usually pursued with a high level of commitment, the recognition of crises may be neglected in favour of operational service provision. In this context, science offers few conceptual offers, especially for NPOs, including corresponding indicators. The aim should be to identify (early) indicators for the indication of crises and indicators for their course and to check their validity. The question of whether and to what extent the crisis stages of the profit-oriented economy (strategic, structural, earnings, liquidity) are applicable to NPOs must be clarified.


The solution starts with the problem, which can be heterogeneous. Likewise, a variety of solutions are conceivable, which have also not yet been described in a structured way. At the same time there are typical problems and therefore typical solutions should also exist. These have to be identified. The spectrum could range from reorientation of the mission to restructuring of processes, change of the financing structure, mobilisation of new/other resources and mergers of organisations. Crisis management in NPOs, with their special governance, often special personnel structures and value-based orientation, will look a little different than in other forms of organisation. Which competencies are required here can be an interesting question.

The project

In a small research project, the current problems of NPOs will be explored and the potential for crisis will be considered. In addition, NPOs in the (existential) crisis or after the (existential) crisis will be analysed with regard to the course of the crisis and ways out of the crisis. From this, indicators for crisis recognition will be derived and theses on the emergence, processing and solution of crises will be developed.

The individual research steps attempt to answer the following questions:

  • What does the NPO-specific literature say about the topic area? What has already been published on the topic of crises of NPOs?

  • Which theories can be used to explain different crises (e.g. resource dependency; systems theory, neo-institutionalism)?

  • What other strands of literature, such as organisational research, risk management, communication theory, etc., can contribute to explaining and dealing with crises?

  • Are there differences with regard to the type of crises as well as their course and solution in the case of different design of resources, service portfolio or core topic of the NPO in the context of the company organisation?

  • Which topics are currently linked to the topic of crisis in practice (NPO management) in German-speaking countries? Which crises have already been experienced by various NPOs? What was their cause? Which solutions were chosen and why?

  • How widespread are existential crises in NPOs? How many bankruptcies, cancellations of associations, etc. are there every year?

  • What is the role of volunteering in NPO crises as part of the service provision, as a supervisory body or in the "owner function"?

Methodologically, the first step is to choose a qualitative research design. The primary aim is to build up an understanding of the topic and to develop conceptual foundations. In a second step, the breadth of the phenomenon can then be determined and analysed by means of quantitative designs.


Mag.Dr.rer.soc.oec. Christian Grünhaus

Christian Grünhaus

Academic Director, Senior Researcher (prev. Schober)
Responsibilities: Work and research focus: Evaluation, SROI analyzes, financing, donation behavior, job satisfaction and motivation, care for the elderly, care for the disabled and accessibility
Harald Bachmeier

External project partner, expert and practicioner
E-Mail: npo-kompetenz@wu.ac.at