The impact of the crisis on civil society organisations in the EU: risks and opportunities

Academic Article

Abstract: This piece is concerned with how civil society organisations (CSOs) have been affected by recent financial and broader socio-economic crises. It presents the results of a small-scale survey that addressed four questions regarding the relationship between CSOs and decision-makers. How is funding affected? To what extent has the crisis affected the voice of civil society? How has CSO contact with decision-makers changed? How engaged are citizens?

In what ways have civil-society organisations been affected by the financial crisis and the more profound socio-economic crisis that has followed? This article summarises the results of a three-month study conducted for the European Economic and Social Committee in the second half of 2012. This study set out to examine the diversity of responses by civil-society organisations (CSOs) to the crisis and provide a bird’s-eye view of the CSO response to the impact of the crisis.

A small-scale survey was conducted, distributed to approximately 50 representatives and thought leaders from different CSOs in nine European Union member states (Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom). The CSOs selected were chosen on the basis of their countries of origin, which was intended to develop a broad overview of the differences present in the EU. By no means fully representative, this study set out to examine several member states alongside broader EU-level hubs of CSOs, focusing on those which work closely with policymakers. We conducted in-depth interviews with the 29 individuals who responded, garnering a high survey-response rate of 58%. Based on an analysis of these data, along with our analysis of primary and secondary data from other sources, our research revealed great variation in reactions from the broad field of civil-society actors in Europe.

In our research, “CSO” was broadly defined to capture all levels of organisation, from the most-local to the highly-formalised international meta organisations and networks. We focused on CSOs that interact with policymakers, in the sense that they either play a role in influencing policymaking through lobbying, or are direct beneficiaries of policies through engagement in delivering services. In this way, we were able to get a snapshot of how CSOs at different territorial levels in Europe have responded to the crisis. The purpose of this pilot study is thus to highlight areas for further research.

We defined “the crisis” as the effects that followed the financial crisis that hit Europe in 2008, particularly the socio-economic crisis that has arisen out of austerity measures in many EU countries. As a consequence of the crisis, the socio-economic fabric of society in some countries, such as Greece and Spain, has been dramatically altered. Unemployment has increased (specifically among the younger population), state spending on public services has decreased, and the cost of living has gone up disproportionately in many countries. CSOs have also been victims of these changes. Yet they also are supposed to present solutions.

In our research, we studied four areas where we expected that the relationship between CSOs and political institutions and policymaking actors have been affected by the financial crisis. First, given the financial origins of the crisis, economic resources comprise the first area of concern. How is funding affected? Second, to what extent has the crisis affected the voice of civil society? Can it still make noise and is it being heard by policymakers? Third, how has the crisis affected CSO contact with decision-makers? Fourth, how engaged are citizens today and on what issues?


One of the most-important aspects of the financial crisis has been a sharp turn towards austerity in many European countries, with the objective of reducing public deficits and strengthening the financial health of the public coffers.

CSOs need financial resources to stay afloat. One of the most-important aspects of the financial crisis has been a sharp turn towards austerity in many European countries, with the objective of reducing public deficits and strengthening the financial health of the public coffers. Our research showed that this reaction happened first in northern European countries. The negative effect of such austerity measures has – in sectors such as culture – been dramatic, as public funding for CSOs is heavily reduced. (For one example, see the piece on Teatro Valle in this issue, p. XX.)

In terms of funding, our interviews found that many larger CSOs have not yet felt the full consequences of austerity because of their more-ample sources of funding. However, the general impression from interviews with members of larger CSOs is of a constant threat that funding cuts will come soon. In contrast to the larger CSOs, however, interviewees in smaller CSOs reported that public funding at the local level has been abruptly cut or substantially reduced, resulting in little opportunity for long-term or even transition planning. In some areas, such as the delivery of social or educational services in Catalonia, the acquisition of public funding has become a zero-sum game. CSOs often pit themselves against each other in order to obtain limited funding. Although this a perennial issue in CSO relations with policymakers, it has been even more dramatic since the shift towards austerity.

Curiously, EU-level funding (such as for projects) has been seen as one consistent (if arduous) means of securing regular and reliable public funding for eligible CSOs. Additionally, the question of funding has been one of the key drivers encouraging certain CSOs to employ different business models. Some CSOs that used to rely on public funding have used other models of financing, including membership fees, project-based financing for European-level activities and philanthropic donations from individuals and corporations. We found that several smaller CSOs have made use of EU-level umbrella organisations to coordinate funding requests for projects at the EU level.


The voice of CSOs refers to the way in which CSOs are capable of speaking to the outside world. This relates to how organisations develop and disseminate a message vis-à-vis other actors in the policy frameworks in which they are engaged. Traditionally, CSOs have had voice principally through interactions with the media and policymakers. In our research we sought to see whether, on the one hand, the capacity of CSOs to deliver a message has been affected by the crisis and, on the other hand, whether the message has changed.

Connected to the new and sometimes-innovative ways of seeking funding, some CSOs have realised that working together to form alliances and networks helps increase their chances of having their voices heard within policymaking arenas now dominated by discussion on economic impact. Some CSOs, notably at the local level, collaborate with others in their areas of interest rather than working in an isolated manner. This collaborative environment has led to the creation of broad fronts in which CSOs work together to ensure that they effectively manage the resources at their disposal and interact with politicians and policymakers who also are working under a great deal of uncertainty and risk.

Collaboration between CSOs has allowed them to be better heard by policymakers. In northern Spain, different religious and non-religious groups formed a coalition to protest public service cuts to social services. In the Netherlands, several different unions and associations joined forces to lobby the government on proposed cuts in the employment system. The question raised by several interviewees was whether these instances of collaboration are sustainable and whether various CSOs are capable of maintaining shared objectives and joint actions. In other words, long-term support for these collaborative initiatives between different CSO groups has emerged as a key issue, as the aftermath of protest appears far more difficult to manage given the limited long-term resources available.

Contact with decision-makers

This dimension examines the spaces of discussion between civil society and policymakers and the ways in which they may have changed since the crisis. In what ways have CSOs changed their approach to meeting with policymakers? Are they looking for or are they offered new ways to interact? In which forums do these discussions now take place, and what types of relations with policymakers prevail?

The financial crisis in Europe has resulted in an increased need for CSOs to work hand-in-hand with governments to solve pressing problems.

Traditionally, the relationships between CSOs and policymakers have been driven very much by issues and have therefore taken place in the context of forums focused on specific issues. For example, CSOs that deal with cultural issues often have been involved in negotiations with ministries of culture. As we noticed through our interviews and secondary research, the crisis indeed has forced organisations to seek out new allies and address different policy interlocutors.

The financial crisis in Europe has resulted in an increased need for CSOs to work hand-in-hand with governments to solve pressing problems. Most of our respondents stated that the opportunities for speaking to policymakers, or more precisely interacting with political institutions, were changing in drastic ways. Government has become more amenable to the idea of relying on CSOs to implement policies. This is in part owing to budgetary restraints made on policy specific areas within governments. Most channels of communication concerning financing for CSO activity now were seen to be driven by a different language more akin to business modelling and financial accountability. However, CSOs have responded to this by reflecting on their tactics for how to interact with political institutions. This involves better communication, enhanced management skills and willingness and capacity to participate in the new public management discourse, which includes “return on investment” and other finance-oriented terms.

In many countries, such as Poland and Romania, political stalemate over the way CSOs are represented on official national economic and social committees has meant that interaction between CSOs and political actors has been curtailed while decisions about structures and allocation of political responsibility are made. According to one respondent in the Netherlands: “The focus of policymakers has [changed]. … All focus is on budget cuts. … [It] has switched from good policy initiatives to budget controlled initiatives.” Regarding the way in which CSOs have to relate to policymakers, an interviewee from Spain responded: “We need to prepare our interactions better; we need to bring better documented plans to the table.” The issue is further complicated by the fact that sectoral issues play an important role in the capacities of CSOs (large and small) to engage in public debate. When a CSO deals with a topic with high media salience, such as environmental politics, it appears that contact with policymakers is greater.


How has engagement changed as a consequence of the crisis? Have citizens been easier to engage as a result of austerity measures? Engagement is possibly the most complex of all four dimensions, and it is one of the most-contested as well as most-recurrent issues in European representative democracies. This is particularly noticeable when looking at a diverse set of organisations, including the entire range of CSOs in an analysis, from large transnational ones to small local ones.

Citizen engagement in CSOs in the wake of the first reactions to the financial crisis has been divided. Obviously, for trade unions and other employee associations, the rise in unemployment has meant that there are more individuals requesting support from some CSOs. Many workers are now entering or re-entering employment, but under different work agreements to those signed before the crisis. As financial imperatives dictate, some citizens have curtailed their participation or financial support to CSOs. However, in some sectors, such as CSOs involved in information communication technology, the increase in skilled short-term unemployed people has led to an increase in volunteers willing to help participate in developing new initiatives through CSOs. One respondent from such a CSO in the UK reported that this had been the case in the establishment of community ICT projects in London.

To what extent has engagement evolved since the crisis? Certainly it seems that there is an increase in visible protest and civic insurrection, but is this translating to participation in member organisations? And to what extent are organisations engaging in new ways with each other, if at all?

Most organisations have not seen an increase in members. One respondent from a large European hub organisation responded: “The same persons keep being active, but the extremely fragile ones, they just stay trying to survive. … Maybe some people get activated but if you look at real minority people who feel they are targets, it does not transform into getting active on these issues.”

Trade unions also report problems holding on to members who have become unemployed, although in some countries a small increase can be seen in public-sector unions. In contrast to other trends on engagement, it appears that a larger core of dedicated actors is engaged in CSO activities, but that more passive-members are in decline. Contribution to the work of CSOs is emerging either as something one does actively or not at all. Additionally, recipients of CSO support – for example, recently unemployed trade union members – are taking up larger amounts of CSO resources, according to responses gathered from several EU-level umbrella organisations.

In general, organisations that work at the national level have been hit hard, particularly in Greece, Spain and Italy. One respondent from a European umbrella association based in Brussels mentioned that the crisis has resulted in the closure of national-level organisations. Even the European Council of Associations of General Interest (CEDAG), a member of the Social Platform in Brussels with a 20-year history, was forced to close its doors. A particular concern is the situation in eastern Europe, where major foundations (for example, the TRUST for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe project) are ending their funding at the end of this year, which will heavily affect organisations in countries like Poland and Romania.

Risks for civil society

The risks posed by the impact of the crisis are obviously different for various types of CSOs. Whereas larger (global-level) CSOs seem to have – relatively speaking – not suffered too badly from the crisis concerning funding, many smaller local-level CSOs are finding it very difficult to shift from models of financing that heavily rely on public funding to ones that can obtain funding from elsewhere. This argument also is valid for those countries where civil society is heavily embedded within public institutional structures through national economic and social committees.

This risk that smaller CSOs get lost in the cacophony of voices is made even more challenging thanks to the responses of certain governments to austerity (noted particularly in the UK and Greece). The forums for discussion between CSOs and policymakers have been diverted towards economic interest, and this has resulted in long-standing political relationships being re-wired. In many cases, this has resulted in changed discourse at the level of policymakers, where terms such as “economic efficiency” and “return on investment” are used instead of broader notions of solidarity and public value. Fragile CSOs, which are often unable to find resources to shift their discourse to meet these new demands, are the first to suffer.

This also affects the relationship between individuals and civil society, as society goes through a complex set of changes where engagement is not at all easily measured. It appears that the trend is for individuals to be more apathetic about societal values, and yet more willing to engage on specific issues that are close to their hearts. The risk is that CSOs have to start to compete for individuals’ attention as if they are selling social awareness.


There are clear opportunities for encouraging shared ownership and allocating a level of enhanced responsibility to CSOs in the EU, with all due attention to the notion of accountability.

Opportunities for CSOs in the current climate are centred on, first, a better understanding of the construction of a European civil society. Transnational and cross-sectoral interaction has emerged from the bottom-up. A sense of solidarity within and across CSOs in several countries was noted. This was reinforced by an interviewee from Spain, who stated that CSOs now have “a better sense of civil society as a whole, from an isolated previous approach. … The dialogue with other CSOs has been positive, in terms of [a] common manifesto in defence of public service.” There are clear opportunities for encouraging shared ownership and allocating a level of enhanced responsibility to CSOs in the EU, with all due attention to the notion of accountability. CSOs also now have the unique opportunity to strengthen their messages, and show that they can function more coherently, and cross-sectorally, to help solve some of Europe’s long-standing problems.

Another rather-surprising finding of our research runs counter to conventional thinking on the implications of the crisis. The crisis provided an opportunity to rejuvenate civil society and enable it to take up different and potentially more-productive and co-operative roles in decision-making processes. The British government’s big-society debate contributes – in a contentious way – to the discussion that has been ongoing for several years in the UK and in other Anglo Saxon countries. We could even start to rethink the meaning of democratic participation in policymaking by CSOs, especially in policy design and implementation. They should not replace public-service providers but help public-service provision be more effective and efficient.

There are obvious questions that emerge from such a study, and these still need to be addressed. How can we be sure that examples cited in our study are transferable to other parts of the world? How can we reconcile positive responses to the crisis with the overwhelming doom-and-gloom scenarios in the media? We do not have the answers, and they perhaps are not easily found. However, what we can say with some certainty is that there is a need to try to ensure that we promote, defend and encourage the capacity of CSOs across Europe to strengthen society’s ability to come to terms with the deep and radical impact that the crisis has had on our democratic systems.


As a result of the study, a number of conclusions in the form of recommendations were made to the European Economic and Social Committee to take advantage of the opportunities and minimise the exposure to challenges that have been outlined above. Some of these are briefly described below.

  • Develop mechanisms to encourage and support bottom-up actions that can be made sustainable: organising without formalising. To do so, it is necessary to first recognise that civil society is increasingly unstructured, mobile and often purposely not bound to any institutional framework.
  • Increase CSO professionalisation: better organisation, enhanced communication strategies, more-effective service delivery (where appropriate) and organisation of the back offices in order to ensure that an effective discourse is used when talking to politicians and policymakers.
  • Encourage cross-sectoral engagement and interaction between different civil society groups by providing opportunities for such initiatives to take place at the local, national and transnational levels.
  • Help the national economic and social committees and their equivalents to engage in supporting the activities of civil society in their own regions and countries by enhanced networking and engaged discourse within and among their European partners. This message must be more-widely spread at the national and sub-national level through different channels, perhaps engaging with social media in more creative ways.

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