New civil society: the start of something special or just a rebrand?


Liana Varon


This week, more than 100 participants met for the EFC Grantmakers East Forum 2018 in Budapest. In the midst of discussions around shrinking civic space and failures of democracy, this year’s Forum focused on ‘Reframing Civil Society: Actors, Values, Tools’ offering a perspective on the emerging actors of ‘new civil societies’, discovering how philanthropy, social investment and technology can support them and amplify their voices.

The Forum started with a thought-provoking speech by the co-founder of project100, Indy Johar. He urged us to think about the next ten-years before we are devastated by the impacts of climate change, and the major shifts it will cause that will eventually lead us to reconsider the meaning of freedom and sovereignty, when interdependence and inequality is ever-increasing. He emphasised that neither governments nor civil society organisations and philanthropic actors have the right mindset or tools to address the needs and challenges of the 21st century. Indy stated that the way we look at these challenges, our discourse in communicating them and our individualized efforts usually lags far behind in understanding these challenges let alone responding to them. On the bright side, he suggested that the key to start understanding and responding to the multilayered challenges of our day and future lies in developing ‘deliberative spaces where complex conversations can happen.’

So, the one question that has become crucial to ask is if philanthropy and civil society organisations have the right mindset, understanding and tools to develop and provide these spaces where different actors can come together, discuss and develop a collaborative approach for addressing these challenges? Or are we running around in circles? With no intention to underestimate the great work that has been pioneered and continued by individual and corporate actors in the world of social change, I kept asking myself if there are really such things as ‘new civil societies’? Or, are we rebranding everything to adapt to the existing conditions offered by the political and economic system while ignoring the core and real questions. Questions that will require us to look deeper at what we do, why we do it, and how we choose to do it. While these questions are essential, it is left for another discussion.

Under the ‘What are the new civil societies?’ stream, the Forum aimed to offer a new discourse shifting the ongoing conversations from shrinking space to how civil society is redefining and reframing itself to open new spaces, and pushing back to existing challenges. I am hesitant about making a separation within civil society that will differentiate between the old and new which may eventually undermine its strengths and value. More importantly, because the notions set forth by the speakers such as building communities, engaging constituencies, increasing the legitimacy and credibility of the sector, regaining trust and building hope are the same needs that respond to all actors in the world of philanthropy and civil society. This may also be considered as a call for civil society organisations- both new and old – to go back to their roots, redefine their values and re-examine their approaches. Support mechanisms for civil society should also address the increasing need for collective citizen action, engagement and participation and therefore community philanthropy models like community foundations and giving circles become more relevant than ever. A new set of challenges emerge for philanthropic actors too. Especially for foundations as the existing circumstances require them to be more strategic in terms of how they allocate their resources, act braver on the causes they support and collaborate for building alliances that will promote systemic change.

Overall, the EFC Grantmakers East Forum 2018 provided a valuable space for discussing what is next for civil society and philanthropy in a world of complex challenges.

Liana Varon is deputy secretary general at TUSEV

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