Does the Theory of Voluntary Sector Failure Provide Insight into Food Pantries? A Case Study of a Network of Food Pantries in San Diego, CA

  • Jennifer A. JonesEmail author
  • Laura Deitrick
Original Paper


Individuals seek food assistance from both government and nongovernmental services. The theory of voluntary sector failure asserts that governments act where nonprofits fail. How, if at all, does this theoretical approach provide insight into basic food provision through food pantries? We conducted a single embedded case study of one network of food pantry programs (n = 298) in one county of approximately 3 million people in the southwest of the USA. We used a survey (n = 137) to measure programmatic and organizational capacity and, then, categorized capacity measures into the four failure categories identified in the theory of voluntary sector failure. We found moderate to strong evidence of failure in all of the categories; however, we also argue that these data do not necessarily support the theory of voluntary sector failure. Two key nuances are identified.


Voluntary sector failure Market failure Food pantry networks Food banks Survey methodology 



Generous support for this research was provided by Mr. Vince Kasperick and the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego. The authors wish to thank Dr. Mary Jo Schumann, Pat Libby, Crystal Trull, and Chelsea Carnes for their technical contributions to this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© International Society for Third-Sector Research and The Johns Hopkins University 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Department of Family, Youth and Community SciencesUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  2. 2.The Nonprofit Institute, School of Leadership and Education SciencesUniversity of San DiegoSan DiegoUSA

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