Civil Society at a Crossroads

Exploring Sustainable Operating Models

Around the world, civil society is at a crossroads. Buffeted on one side by questions about their relevance, legitimacy, and accountability from governments and their beneficiaries, civil society organizations (CSOs) face pressure to demonstrate their value to and connection with local communities. On the other side, civil society is having to adjust to a rapidly deteriorating legal and operational environment, as countless governments pursue regulatory, administrative, and extra-legal strategies to impede their work. Nonstate actors also pose a threat to the sector, attacking human rights defenders, bloggers and journalists, environmentalists, and labor unionists in unprecedented numbers. Simultaneously, CSOs are encountering major disruptions to their revenue streams because of changing donor priorities and government restrictions on foreign funding, and to their business model from emerging forms of civic activism.

At this pivotal moment, CSOs can either adapt or hunker down, hoping that the tide of change will crest and dissipate. For those organizations intent on survival, there is an urgent need to find alternative models and approaches—even as they fight for their right to exist and receive funding. The crisis confronting the civil society sector creates an impetus for donors and civil society to jointly reexamine traditional approaches and reimagine what healthier, more sustainable operating models would look like. This paper seeks to contribute to this conversation by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of various organizational forms on civil society’s sustainability and resilience. The focus of this analysis is on models used by and relevant to local “social justice” CSOs—whether operating in the realm of human rights, development, environmental justice, or anticorruption and transparency. This paper will not consider government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs), international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) including those with local chapters, or organizations exclusively operating in cyberspace. The research for this paper was conducted under the auspices of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Space (iCon), a coalition of scholars and experts from around the world that is developing concrete, evidence-based recommendations on how best to address and push back on closing space around civil society.

Shannon N. Green