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An Eco-System Approach for Civil Society

Eco-system for Civil Society
Illustrations by Civil Society Academy

Many donors, international NGOs, or service providers have the objective of supporting civil society and make it more diverse and vibrant. But what exactly does it mean? How do we define gaps in the civil society or its enabling environment, and how do we decide which type of action or strategy we would like to prioritize?

We propose an eco-system approach that looks at the enabling environment. It defines six critical eco-system functions that are essential for a flourishing civil society. The approach and the functions are based on similar models that have been developed for the start-up scene. We assume that all organizations, including from civil society, have similar requirements, and depend on an enabling environment as well as from emerging synergies, incubation, and innovation among the players. Organizations that are offering such eco-system functions are often civil society themselves, and they might fulfill functions for actors from grassroots to national level. The model also points towards the geographic clustering of functions and organizations and building an interrelated fabric of organizations that are mutually supportive.

The eco-system functions for civil society are:

  • Space describes the legal, political, and societal framework which is critical for new civil society initiatives and organizations to flourish.

In many countries, civil society space is increasingly encroached, evident in new CSO legislations, blacklists, control through intelligence services, physical harm, and imprisonment of activists and journalists, as well as closing down of organizations. To help reverse this trend, new types of support are required to strengthen civil society networks and actions to oppose shrinking space.

  • Public Perception refers to the reputation of civil society actors as well as the public’s understanding and importance towards civil society roles and its structures.

The perception is critical for the people’s engagement, in terms of supporting, volunteering, funding, or working for civil society. In analyzing public perception, one needs to differentiate between types of organizations. For instance, community-based actors may have a good reputation in a country, while development NGOs may not.

  • Funding is essential for fulfilling civil society functions and a key concern of every NGO. Who is funding which organizations, why and for which activities, as well as emerging trends, are important questions.

Even though it does not feel like to most organizations, overall funding trends for development interventions of NGOs remain positive. The donor landscape, however, changes rapidly: The relevance of the western institutional donors as well as ’donor NGOs’ decreases while national and international philanthropists, ‘corporate social responsibility’ as well as private donations become more relevant to southern CSOs.

  • Talent and Training: Attracting talent is a critical issue for every organization, so is training staff.

In our experiences, addressing people's development is often a priority to civil society actors, but there are limited capacities to implement a coherent strategy to attract and retain talented and committed people. However, in some less developed countries, national NGOs, and more so international ones, still provide attractive working conditions if compared to the private sector. In emerging economies, the trend usually reverses, and CSOs may compete with a thriving private sector. Jobs in CSOs are often less reputed, hence fewer high-potentials enter the sector.

  • Location and Events refer to common locations of organizations, to work, meet and collaborate, and to organize events that are relevant to the challenges and opportunities of a set of organizations.

“Grab a coffee with an investor in the morning, hold a meeting with a client before lunch and learn from industry veterans at our events in the evening”, so the marketing text of Factory Berlin, a popular start-up working space. Such trends of bringing together the talents and key actors, now slowly enters the civil society space. It could significantly improve the vibe and the effectiveness of social change action, and combat compartmentalization and self-centeredness of organizations.

  • Incubation and Acceleration refer to the question, how new initiatives or organizations can be encouraged and started, and how existing organizations can become more effective in terms of social change.

Supporting individuals, as Ashoka does, to develop their concepts for social progress, is important. However, such initiatives need to be diverse and have large geographic outreach. Also, established NGOs are often in dire need of innovation, for broadening their perspective and entrepreneurial spirit towards increasing their impact and achieving social change. Process facilitation, strengthening leadership, coaching, and new ways of partnerships are approaches that could be supportive in incubating and accelerating social impact initiatives.

So, which eco-system functions are your organization supporting, why, and how? This analysis can help organizations including state actors, to analyze the eco-system for civil society in a country or a region, including key players that support specific functions. Subsequently, it may help in reviewing your organizations’ strategy to support civil society and to realize gaps or opportunities for future engagement.

What are the advantages of using an eco-system approach?

  1. It puts civil society in the center of your analysis, and the needs and drivers that are essential for civil society to flourish.

  2. It puts emphasis on functions for an enabling environment which is critical for new organizations to emerge, for organizations to grow and for clusters of organizations with similar targets to develop.

  3. The approach calls for a diversified set of initiatives, networks, support organizations, and service providers for civil society that can strengthen the eco-system in a given country, region or town.

  4. It encourages building organizations that can take up eco-system functions, such as intermediaries, umbrella organizations, or service providers. For small civil society organizations, including CBOs, support structures are critical to their sustainable development.

  5. It challenges the usual way we look at NGO partnerships, which are dominated by funding relations, and often do not deliver when it comes to civil society. Sustainable solutions should be more based on the envisioned long-term social change and less on short-term targets for funding and social success, which sometimes dominate NGOs in the South and the North.


About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz started his career with the UN before shifting to Civil Society. In Welthungerhilfe, he worked in leadership positions in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, and as Regional Director for South Asia. Joachim is passionate about Civil Society and has been a main engine of the Civil Society Academy since its inception in 2014.


If you are interested in the eco-system approach, and want us to support strategy processes in your organization. Please contact: Joachim Schwarz

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