Recent years have provided ample opportunities to discover just how resilient civil society can be in the face of severe threats. The inherently innovative nature of bottom-up, citizen-led initiatives can be seen in response to unexpected challenges like a global pandemic as well as longer-term negative political trends like populist invocations of national sovereignty to short circuit social and political solidarity across borders.

Our effort here is to map some of the ways that civil society is continuing to innovate:

COVID-19 Response

Addressing Humanitarian Needs

When the Coronavirus pandemic surged around the world, civil society organizations quickly adjusted their activities to respond to needs generated by the global public health crisis, including access to critical supplies like personal protective equipment as well as basic goods, such as food for communities particularly vulnerable to disruptions in food distribution networks. CSOs also put their informational resources and channels to new use, reducing gaps in access to critical public health information.

Combating Coronavirus-Related Restrictions on Civic Rights

Governments putting in place measures designed to protect public health by curbing the surging pandemic sometimes compromise other public interests, such as privacy rights and freedom of expression. The emergency footing of the public health crisis – and the resulting urgency of the measures taken – reduced the opportunity for robust public debate of the policy changes that were hastily implemented. CSOs have responded by adapting their knowledge, skills and strategies to new circumstances: surfacing instances of governmental overreach, keeping government accountable for human rights infringements and contributing to wider public discourse about the appropriate balance between public health and individual rights.

Countering Misinformation

The fast-paced nature of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the novel scientific and policy questions it generated, led to widespread confusion about rapidly changing factual understanding and reliability of competing sources of information. Some CSOs responded with strategies and tactics designed to aid the public in sorting out fact from fiction as governmental authorities and traditional and social media alike became sources of conflicting information.

Overcoming Disruptions to CSO Operations

As social distancing practices and restrictions on travel disrupted the economy, so, too, they created significant barriers to normal operations of CSOs, which rely heavily on networking strategies and the kind of trust-based communication that is hard to accomplish without in-person contact. Moreover, solidarity among civil society actors has been severely undermined as international travel ground to a halt, dramatically reducing the opportunities to gather and connect  that form the bedrock for cross-border solidarity. Some CSOs developed new ways to organize and communicate with people that at least partially compensate for these and other disruptions.

Innovative Organizational Forms for Civil Society

Any civil society initiative, no matter how spontaneously it is generated, must consider how to organize itself if it is to sustain activities over a significant period of time in order to achieve its goals. The standard organizing form for human rights groups that have flourished since the 1990s is comprised of a legal structure (typically a non-profit, charitable association or foundation) and a revenue model (typically charitable grants).

As political pressure on cross-border grant-making has increased, civil society initiatives relying on the traditional organizational form have become vulnerable. In the meantime, growing trends in social entrepreneurship, impact investment, voluntarism, and technological & generational change have sparked the proliferation of alternative organizational forms, comprised of other legal structures and/or revenue models, such as:

Locally-Funded Charitable Organizations

CSOs sometimes need to change their legal structures in order to accept local charitable funding, engage in public fundraising and apply for government contracts. They may also need to adopt a different public profile, revising their communication strategy and their programming in order to cultivate a new and different philanthropic constituency. To raise funds from the public they serve, for example, it may be desirable to change their form of governance to a membership model. Civil society initiatives can also use an existing crowdfunding platform or develop their own.

Social Enterprises

Some CSO functions can be carried out in the form of a business that generates commercial revenue. At their early stages, before they generate sufficient revenue to cover their operations, social enterprises may seek funding from impact investors who expect a low, slow or no return on investment. They may also seek “research and development” funds from charitable or public sources in their early stages as they develop and execute their business strategy.

Partnerships & Agencies

Some CSO functions can be carried out by individuals working together in partnerships or by allocating work to individuals on a roster of service-providers. Such partnerships/agencies can be sustained through marketing the consulting services or through project-based fundraising. Services that are in commercial demand can sometimes subsidize services at no or low cost. Public interest law firms are an example from the legal field, but the model can be applied to many professional services.

Tech Platform/App

Some CSO functions can be carried out with dramatically reduced cost by developing a new application of technology or using an existing application in a novel way. Sometimes the new application can generate commercial revenue, like a social enterprise, with the potential to attract impact investment. Such start-ups also lend themselves well to crowdfunding, particularly if crowd sourcing technology is inherent in the design of the application. In addition, applications relying on blockchain technology can potentially sustain themselves by developing tokens that carry either monetary or non-monetary value.

Volunteer-Based Initiatives

Many CSO functions can be carried out at modest cost by mobilizing voluntary efforts via social media platforms. Professional volunteering among lawyers and other professionals is also growing. Crowdfunding strategies lend themselves well to covering some of the costs of coordinating volunteer efforts, which can be further enhanced through existing or new software applications. Further, the increased degree of comfort with remote communication and collaboration by Millennials and Gen Z provides growing opportunities for mobilizing volunteer-based strategies.


Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash