Reinventing Dutch civil society

21 februari 2013, 04:00
Reinventing Dutch civil society
Reinventing Dutch civil society
The Dutch non-profit sector has lost its links with a civil society that the state wishes to redevelop. As government re-evaluates its policy of subsidising the non-profit sector, what are the organisational options and how might civil society develop?

A decade ago, in a comparative international research project on the global existence of the non-profit sector, researchers observed that policy makers and academics in certain, mostly European, countries did not see not-for-profit organisations as representing a separate sector. Instead, non-profit and civil society organisations were seen as being integrated into governmental policy fields such as environment, education, social services or training and employment.

This observation is still valid, and the Netherlands, which has a non-profit or civil society sector of considerable size and importance, offers a good example of this notion of integrated fields of activity. However, Dutch nonprofit and civil society organisations have come to regard the state as their primary source of financial support and legitimacy. Indeed, it would not be unfair to say that these organisations became lazy and neglected to develop alternative sources of emotional and financial support. In short, they have neglected philanthropy as source of income and legitimacy. A consequence is that the Dutch non-profit sector has lost its links with civil society.

Against this backdrop, the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act (Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning [Wmo]) and restructured how international aid is financed as part of a broader policy designed to encourage the redevelopment of civil society. The reaction from citizens, NPOs and politicians has been one of panic.

Five phases
The development of Dutch civil society can be described in five phases. The first four encompass the period leading up to about 2003, when the fifth phase started. The Social Support Act of 2007 can be seen as a codifying of this fifth societal trend, a process that has gathered pace because of the on-going financial crisis.

Phase 1: As a result of the 1848 Dutch Constitution, the education system was regulated on the basis that it was of great national significance. At the time, there was great tension in society between religious and class based groupings with each having different expectations of the role of the state and education especially. The struggle for emancipation continued until around 1917, when socialist and liberal parties traded their goals of general voting rights in exchange for the Roman Catholic and Protestant groupings objective of government financing for religious schools. This pacifying event, which opened the door to large-scale subsidising of religious and class-based organisations, can be seen as the beginnings of the growth of the Dutch non-profit sector.

Phase 2: The subsidising of multiple religious and class-based organisations led to the phenomenon of pillarisation. Unlike in a society horizontally stratified by class, Dutch society is typified as a peculiar kind of plural society with discrete vertical segments (pillars) that have their own social and political organisations. Pillarisation can be understood as diversification at the bottom and consensus building at the top between segments of society with different religious perspectives or ideologies. At the top, the elites of the different pillars construct and maintain a basic consensus; political majorities can only be formed by coalition. The process of pillarisation in society in the Netherlands created the framework for the development of paid staff dominating non-profit service delivery organisations, mutual support associations and campaigning organisations, even though these employees were funded by taxes paid for out of the public purse rather than from voluntary philanthropic income. What should be noted here is that organisations within each pillar received funding more or less in proportion to the amount of taxes that pillar contributed to government. In effect, fundraising by taxation.

Phase 3: After World War II, three modernising forces contributed to undermine pillarisation. The first was the rise of the welfare state, which allowed individuals to be less dependant on their pillar whilst pillars themselves became more dependant on the state. Second, increasing geographic and social mobility, rising levels of education and the broadening of horizons courtesy of television made people more independent of their pillar. Third, secularisation meant that the impact of denominational sets of norms and values (ideologies) diminished. A consequence of depillarisation has been the formation of larger nonprofit organisations with broader, more encompassing remits across former pillar boundaries, a result of which is that distinguishing between NPOs and private or public service delivering organisations is difficult.

Phase 4: The fourth stage, which can be seen as a move towards the private market, came about as a result of two forces that altered the structure of NPOs: privatisation and liberalisation were the buzzwords in public policy circles, and the monopolies held by some organisations came to an end. Perhaps the most significant change was the policy of giving clients budgets and allowing them to choose which organisations they would contract for the services required. Effectively, the non-profit sector moved inexorably towards a market sector where clients are selected based upon their spending power instead of their belonging to a certain group.

Phase 5:  In recent times, the state has re-evaluated its policy of subsidising the non-profit sector. Consequently, many of the non-profit organisations in the country have seen their national subsidies reduced by extreme percentages if not withdrawn completely. Affected organisations have responded by seeking out other sources of state funding and by realigning themselves as civil society organisations. This stage can be typified as a move towards civil society.

Three options
Philanthropy, voluntary private resources for public issues, has been fundamental in the past and will be crucial for the future of the Dutch nonprofit sector and civil society. To gain insight into how the latter may evolve, it is necessary to understand the nature of the archetypal organisations that make up the former. NPOs are service delivery organisations characterised by a high level of professionalism and by their customer orientation. As an organisational form they are close to for-profit firms. The term NGO refers mainly to organisations that place emphasis on their own ideological agenda, function independently of government and contribute a ‘voice’ or provide input for policy.  Mutual support organisations exist because people have come together around an issue that links them: as examples, an illness, sport, or common interest. Such organisations are usually referred to as associations.

These three archetypal organisations also differ in their main funding structures. Service delivery organisations can raise fees for the provision of services; mutual support organisations can use membership dues (a kind of fees for service), while campaigning organisations mainly work with donations.

Based upon these three types of non-profits, three types of civil societies can be described.  First, the service oriented civil society. This instrumental use of the civil society is dominant in the Dutch WMo, which also describesvolunteering as a policy area for local governments. Basically, non-profit organisations are needed and used to deliver cheaper and better services.

Second, when looking at the position of the Dutch government in supporting and stimulating volunteering, two aspects are prominent: social capital and social cohesion (the importance of socialisation and grassroots initiatives). This social capital oriented civil society is derived from mutual support organisations, because these associations also function to create and maintain social capital.

Third, civil society develops as it is described in the literature and used in stakeholder dialogue (business) or social movements (sociology). Here we have a politics oriented civil society and speak of NGOs instead of non-profits. The NGOs serve as opposition against governments and businesses.

The need to legitimise diversity and heterogeneity in the Dutch non-profitsector has led to a quest for the revitalisation of civil society. For this to happen, Dutch society needs to understand how different organisational forms fit different conceptualisations of civil society. This will influence the role of government and foundations in supporting civil society in general, and more specifically, could explain why certain policies work or simply do not.
In general, the need to reduce the financial burden on government leads to a desire for the remaining subsidies to be used in a service oriented civil society (NPOs). However, it may be that such a policy pushes civil society away from the  politics oriented civil society (NGOs) and the social capital oriented civil society (mutual support organisations). The question must be asked then: does society need all three? And if it does, what is the role of the philanthropic sector in supporting the two other types of civil society organisation – those that offer mutual support, and NGOs?

This article is based on “Reinventar la socIedad civil: A la tercera va la vencida!”, which was written by Lucas Meijs. The paper is to be presented at a conference organized by the Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES, Madrid, Spain) and published in the book “Europa ante una crisis global” (Editor: Víctor Pérez-Díaz), Gota a Gota, Madrid.  Web:

Lucas Meijs is Professor of Strategic Philanthropy, Rotterdam School of Management and Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, Erasmus University.

*Dit artikel verscheen eerder in ECSP Insight (december 2012)
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