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10 Myths on Civil Society Debunked

On June 20, the HSE’s Centre for Studies of Civil Society and the Nonprofit Sector held a seminar led by Lester Salamon, Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies and now Academic Advisor of the HSE’s International Laboratory for Nonprofit Sector Studies that was established earlier this year.

Opening the seminar, Irina Mersiyanova, Director of the HSE’s Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector, noted that with the increasing activity of civil society organizations at the local, regional, national and international levels, a shortage of reliable empirical information about civil society globally is increasingly being felt. All sorts of myths proliferate about how the nonprofit sector operates and how it is financed.

Professor Salamon’s report was dedicated to assessing the 10 most common myths about global civil society. He noted that when he began his research, the academic community did not have a clear definition of civil society and the nonprofit sector. The absence of such theoretical concepts and the imperfection of statistical accounting in the nonprofit sector has led to the belief that the nonprofit sector does not exist, which in turn results in the rise of myths surrounding it.

In the conventional system of national accounting, there are five sectors: non-financial institutions (corporations), financial institutions (corporations), government organizations and institutions, households and nonprofit organizations serving households. In applying this methodology, information about the nonprofit sector is incomplete and does not reflect the real situation, even though the nonprofit sector can make up to 15% of GDP. Professor Salamon focused on the nonprofit sector and the criteria by which nonprofit organizations are institutionally separate from the state, do not distribute profit, are self-governing, and have members who are involved in organizations on a voluntary basis.

Professor Salamon believes that this definition allows the nonprofit sector to encompass a wide range of organizations, such as trade and industry associations, universities, environmental and human rights organizations, sports clubs, professional organizations, foundations, museums, as well as public and private hospitals.

In his report, Professor Salamon presented and debunked the following 10 myths about global civil society:

The first myth is that the nonprofit sector is weak and is therefore invisible. According to Professor Salamon, however, this myth is due to the imperfect statistical records used to account for the nonprofit sector’s contribution to general economic development. What is really at issue is the ‘economic’ invisibility of the nonprofit sector.

The second myth, according to Professor Salamon, imposes on us the belief that civil society primarily exists to provide social services. He reminded the audience about the functions of the nonprofit sector in our day and age, which include of course the provision of social services (e.g., medical and educational services). A huge part of the nonprofit sector, however, is aimed at protecting the interests of people, spreading the development of social and cultural values ​​in society, preserving traditions, as well as developing and maintaining social structures.

The third myth is the widespread misconception about the nonprofit sector’s marginal economic nature. Professor Salamon shared figures suggesting that the nonprofit sector’s contribution in the economy ranges in different countries from 15.7% in the U.S. to 1.5% in South Korea. For Russia, this figure is 3.373%, although Russian researchers note that the macroeconomic aspect of civil society organizations in Russia has not yet been studied enough to draw conclusions.

The fourth myth is the belief that civil society organizations are primarily an American phenomenon, and much less evidence of their activity can be found in other countries. The fifth myth is related to the fourth, which holds that in Scandinavian countries, where the welfare state is highly developed, the nonprofit sector does not exist. The data mentioned by Professor Salamon do not confirm these ‘hypotheses’, however. In addition, statistical accounting used at nonprofit organizations in Scandinavian countries allows for the nonprofit sector’s economic contribution in these countries to be identified.

The sixth myth states that paid employees everywhere ‘crowd out’ volunteers from the nonprofit sector. Studies have shown, however, that in 37 countries, 56% of all people working in the nonprofit sector are paid employees and 44% are volunteers.

The seventh myth concerns fables about sources of funding in the nonprofit sector. For example, it is believed that the main source of funding for nonprofit organizations comes from donations (many people in the U.S. believe this). However, in 34 countries, 53% of nonprofit organizations generate income from providing services, 35% receive financial support from the state, and only 12% receive charitable contributions.

The eighth myth goes on to say that in the U.S., philanthropy is the absolute leading source of financing for nonprofit organizations. This statement is also not confirmed by statistics. The distribution of nonprofit funding in the U.S. is actually average, i.e., a big part comes from the provision of services (57%) and a much smaller from philanthropy (13%).

The ninth myth, according to Professor Salamon, is that the nonprofit sector is more labour-intensive than capital-intensive. However, in recent years this ratio has changed, with the nonprofit sector becoming more capital intensive and employing innovative financial instruments to raise capital.

Finally, the professor did not have trouble toppling the last, tenth myth about the pace of the nonprofit sector’s development in comparison with the private sector. Data for five countries — the Czech Republic, Belgium, Canada, the U.S. and Japan — suggest that the nonprofit sector is growing more rapidly than the economy on average.

Tatiana Bogoslovskaya, Evgenia Konovalova and Natalia Ivanova, specially for the HSE news service

Photos by Mikhail Dmitriev

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