Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

The Changing Role of Private, Nonprofit Organizations in the Development and Delivery of Human Services in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

The Changing Role of Private, Nonprofit Organizations in the Development and Delivery of Human Services in the United States

Article excerpt


While an academic literature on the nonprofit sector in the U.S. economy did not emerge until the 1970s (Hall, 2010), community-based organizations and charities have been essential in addressing human service needs since the colonial days. Nonprofit organizations today continue in this role offering a complex set of programs. Domestic violence shelters, job training and employment programs, child care centers, foster care, child protection, prisoner reentry, and day programs for seniors and the mentally challenged are among the long and ever-growing list of human services provided by nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit organizations have a long history of partnering with government, private business and communities in the creation and delivery of human services. Through lobbying and advocacy, nonprofits have also influenced public policy and developed funding streams. This article highlights the important historic roots of the nonprofit sector to provide a context to more fully understand the scope and breadth of modern nonprofit human service organizations in the United States. The first section provides a brief history of nonprofit human service organizations and the key policies impacting the development of the nonprofit sector. An examination of the contemporary human services subsector follows with a discussion of the challenges including the push-pull tensions of contracting out versus collaboration and grassroots or community-based responsiveness versus professionalized management. Finally, implications of these challenges, coupled with the current political context, lead to important questions for nonprofit leaders and policymakers.

Newspaper headlines today underscore the needs of the homeless, poor, neglected and disabled. Private, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and churches work individually and collaboratively to create responses to these and other social issues. Throughout the history of the U.S., nonprofit human service organizations have played pivotal roles in maintaining and promoting overall quality of life for individuals and communities (Zins, 2001). This article both celebrates and encourages these purposes.


The nonprofit sector in the United States has evidenced a remarkable ability to adapt over time to changing demands and expectations. The practice of charity has been a part of life since the first settlers. The laws and traditions prominent in England at the time were often adopted in early American communities. For example, in 1601 the English Parliament passed the Statute of Charitable Uses, described as "the starting point of the modern law of charities" (Douglas, 1987, p. 43). The statute sanctioned use of private monies for the benefit of the public good. Early American colonists incorporated these values as they shaped the roles of government, business and community (Hall, 2010; Holland & Ritvo, 2008). Voluntary associations were often created to address community problems (Arnsberger, Ludlum, Riley, & Stanton, 2008). As the U.S. Constitution granted significant powers to the states to develop their own laws governing corporations and associations, colonial governments and emerging community groups took on the role of funding and delivering social services "working side by side, at times together and other times along parallel lines" (Lowenberg, 1992, p. 125). The tradition of reciprocal support continued throughout the nineteenth century as governments funded a variety of voluntary social welfare activities, and many voluntary organizations assisted cities, states, and the federal government fulfill their welfare responsibilities (Lowenberg, 1992). During this time period, voluntary agencies were created out of pragmatic necessity to tackle emerging social and human problems when government did not have adequate resources, rather than to express and ideological cause (Lowenberg, 1992). …

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