On 12 July 2022, the ISTR conference in Montreal started off with a topical program on nonprofit organisations in turbulent times. Among the first sessions: a roundtable on ‘European civil society in the public sphere’. About 30 researchers from different countries and background gathered to discuss recent changes affecting nonprofit organisations across Europe. The roundtable reflected on the widely known debate of the shrinking space of civil society.
Anna Domaradzka, sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Warsaw, described the difficult situation of nonprofits in Poland, where government policies have been directing funding through the National Institute of Freedom, thereby favoring those organisations that are in line with government priorities. Funding schemes for nonprofits are also changing in France. Claire Breschard of the Institut Français du Monde Associatif explained that the financial conditions for the nonprofit sector in France have become more difficult. Ruth Simsa of Vienna University of Economics and Business turned the attention to the impact of right-wing populism on civil society in Austria which has led to critical funding cuts for critical nonprofits and to a growing gap between the government and civil society. The political development in Austria has resulted in destabilising democratic institutions and rising economic inequalities. According to Simsa, the concept of civil society capture can help to understand how authoritarian governments have asserted pressure on civil society through public discourses and marginalising critical voices. Rupert Strachwitz of the Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society in Berlin emphasised the problem of collaboration between the state and civil society in Germany. As the partnership approach is not fully realised, civil society organisation often find themselves in a weak situation, particularly in comparison to the much stronger representation of business interests.
After the input statements, the panelists discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine on civil society in Europe. In Poland, a strong response to the war could be observed. The influx of Ukrainian refugees raised the need of civil society participation in service provision. However, the modes of cooperation between government and civil society still remains unclear. In France, nonprofit organisations still feel the effects of the pandemic which meant that many organisations have moved their operation to the digital space which has undermined horizontal relations among co-workers and activists. In Germany, the pandemic has led to a decrease in the strength of local communities of choice.
The discussion with the audience focused on civil society debates in Europe and the problem of how organisations are portrayed in the media. The panelists highlighted that the framing of civil society in the media is often problematic. In addition, policy-makers are often afraid of losing power, and the political systems in Europe are increasingly under stress. In this situation, nonprofits find it difficult to reach out for new volunteers and supporters. Further questions from the audience turned the attention to protest movements during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a nutshell, the panel debate offered a great overview over the challenges that nonprofits are currently facing in Europe.
Dr. Ulla Pape Otto, Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin