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Researchers Discuss How the Pandemic Is Changing Civic Activism

Researchers Discuss How the Pandemic Is Changing Civic Activism

© HSE University

In October, HSE University held the 10th Conference of Civil Society Researchers, organized by the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector. The main topic of this anniversary forum was ‘The impact of the crisis on the development of the nonprofit sector and citizen self-organization in Russia: New realities and prospects’. The conference was co-organized by the Association "European University for Volunteering" (EUV) and the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV), a long-time partner of the centre.

This year the forum was held in a dual format, with some participants taking part online, while others attended on-site. The meeting brought together a record number of speakers: more than 60 people from 16 countries and various regions of the Russian Federation - from Kaliningrad and Moscow to Novosibirsk and Kamchatka Krai. They discussed various aspects of the way the recent crisis has impacted the non-profit sector and public self-organization, which is a resource and seedbed for the non-profit sector.


 An Interdisciplinary character determined by the complex nature of the study object. Civil society, a voluntary cooperation of citizens for the benefit of society outside state structures, is considered by scientists and experts through the prism of sociology, economics, philosophy, political science, history, statistics, and management sciences.

 The principle of mutual enrichment of science and practice, when representatives of academic science and activists meet at a round table as equal partners in professional discourse. Moreover, scientists who study the problems of civil society are often civil activists themselves, said Lev Yakobson, Vice President of HSE University, Academic Supervisor of the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector.

Lev Yakobson identified two global types of changes in the sector caused by the pandemic. The first is technological change, and above all, the increasing role of the Internet. The second type can be defined as the spontaneous focus of altruism, the implementation of altruistic behavior on specific challenges highlighted by the pandemic.

© HSE University

In addition, the crisis enhanced the problems that third sector organizations were facing before. Irina Mersiyanova, the Centre Director, notes that current difficulties of NGOs are primarily caused by a lack of financial resources and the resulting shortage of qualified personnel. Half of all NGOs are currently experiencing a shortage of funds.


At the same time, more than half of HGO heads noted the positive impact of state support measures. The most effective of these were tax incentives, government grants, and changes in legislation. However, according to the respondents, the demand by NGO sector for state support measures is far from being satisfied. During the pandemic, the non-profit sector was not supported as actively as business. Thus, according to respondents' estimates, only 20% of NGOs received grants, meaning the demand for increased state support is still relevant.

Social self-organization, everyday activism outside of membership of any associations is increasingly pushing the boundaries of civil society and strengthening its socio-economic role. Marina Shabanova, Professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, leading research fellow at the centre, demonstrated this process, through a case study based on empirical data on responsible waste sorting (separate waste collection) as a new voluntary practice by consumers. People are taking responsibility for the problem that they consider socially important through their own initiative.

The dynamic of changes in public life caused by the pandemic is complex and ambiguous. Sergey Revyakin, research fellow at the centre, drew attention to the mixed results of universal digitalization. According to a survey conducted in June 2021, almost a fifth of the respondents believe that the introduction of digital technologies is harmful: 15% believe that digitalization will do more harm than good, and 7% think that digitalization can only do harm. Digital threats to citizens' rights, which are becoming evident internationally (including misuse of personal data and violation of the right to privacy, computer fraud, and others), indicate an urgent need for legal regulation aimed at protecting citizens in the digital environment.

Discussion of the problems faced by non-profit organizations during the pandemic inevitably leads to questions about the sustainability of the sector and its adaptive potential. These questions were raised in most of the reports delivered at the conference.

Factors and signs of NGO sustainability, manifested during the crisis caused by the pandemic

 Flexibility and increased readiness to respond to the crisis thanks to the experience gained in the first year of the pandemic (Yulia Khodorova, CF "KAF").

 A combination of activities to implement NGO missions with active work in demand during the pandemic: assistance for citizens at risk, the elderly who are in self-isolation, and doctors (Varvara Kulkova, Kazan State Energy University).

 Clear perspectives of the mission in conjunction with short-term planning (Irina Reshta, Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center).

 Diversification of services to support beneficiaries in new conditions (Nikolay Slabzhanin, Public Charity Organization ‘Russian Committee “SOS Children's Villages”’).

Receipt of state funding (Anna Filippova, HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector, Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Studies in Non-Commercial Sector).

Colleagues from the republics of the post-Soviet space considered various aspects of financial stability. Muatar Haidarova (branch of the International Center for Non-Profit Law in Tajikistan) conducted a comparative analysis of the legislation regulating fundraising by non-profit organizations in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

This study concluded that the access of NGOs to financial resources primarily depends on the legislation providing this access, and how well NGOs know their rights and obligations to take advantage of this access. Aigerim Musabalinova (Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan) noted the important role of the provision of social services by non-profit organizations via state request.

© HSE University

Despite the importance of funding to ensure sustainability during the crisis, volunteers who invest their time and work in activities for the benefit of the society and individual social groups in need of assistance, are no less an important resource of the non-profit sector. Natalia Gorlova (Plekhanov Russian University of Economics) and Yuri Belanovsky (Danilovtsy Volunteer Movement) stressed that the transition to online work significantly limited volunteers' access to wards in social institutions. The development of online volunteering is in no way a substitute for offline activities, the speakers noted. At the same time, Valery Mitrofanenko (Association of Volunteer Movements of the Caucasus) believes that the enforced restrictions make it necessary to more actively exchange experience and coordinate the activities of NGOs at the local level.

Maria Pevnaya (Ural Federal University) drew attention to the fact that in the Sverdlovsk region the involvement of students in organized forms of social activity is slowly but surely increasing. The researchers paid special attention to the sociodemographic characteristics of volunteers in various areas, determining volunteer identity and allowing NGOs to build a strategy for attracting volunteers according to the mission and values of a particular organisation. Volunteers engaged in rescue operations and emergencies, unlike other volunteers, are often represented by middle-aged people (30-49-year-olds). Businessmen and senior managers are more often engaged in this volunteering activity, than in any other, according to Olga Basheva (Institute of Sociology of the Federal Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences). Together with her colleague Polina Ermolaeva, they noted that these volunteers are pioneers in terms of digitalizing their activities, something which significantly distinguishes this group from volunteers in other areas.

© iStock

During the session dedicated to the impact of the pandemic on the activity of the non-profit sector in foreign countries, researchers from the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Israel and other countries shared experience of citizens’ self-organization. Wolfgang Krell (Augsburg Volunteer Center) said that during the crisis, informal social self-organization at the local level, including neighborhood associations, individual initiatives of mutual assistance (food delivery, medicine provision, dog walking, etc.) intensified. An informal infrastructure was created spontaneously, combining various initiatives of neighborhood assistance, which only later received state support at the municipal and federal levels.

Professor Viola Krebs (University of Business and International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland) drew attention to the phenomenon of so-called cyber, or online volunteering. She suggested that new technologies and practices, which volunteers had to rapidly master during the pandemic, will become widespread in the future, especially among young people.

The active participation of students and doctoral students as researchers and speakers during the two final sessions of the conference was a distinctive feature of the anniversary conference and one of the main keys to its future development.

Along with the Russian participants, students and doctoral students from Vietnam, Ghana, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria presented their research results. These reports by young researchers examined the factors contributing to the rise of civic activism and the development of social entrepreneurship in the countries of Southeast Asia. They also outlined the pressing problems of the sector and public self-organization: the role of social media in increasing the sustainability of NGOs, the ambiguous perception of the dangers posed by COVID-19 by the population, civil law regulation of NGOs and institutionalization of the professional community within NGOs. The problems raised by young scientists today may create the research agenda for tomorrow’s NGOs.

Another feature of this conference was the noticeable presence of reports on the increasing role of volunteer organizations in supporting state cultural institutions, preserving historical and cultural monuments. There is an increase in the number of museum volunteers (the number of older people among them is also increasing), says Elena Gorbyleva (State Memorial and Nature Reserve "Museum-Estate of L. N. Tolstoy "Yasnaya Polyana").

Ekaterina Khaunina (State Institute for Art Studies, Moscow Art Theater School) stressed that public organizations and movements, such as the "Cultural Volunteers", are a necessary component of the cultural heritage financing model. Denis Ovsyannikov (Endowment Fund for the Development of the Moscow Art Theater School) spoke about plans for the formation of an endowment capital fund of the Moscow Art Theater School as a promising response to crisis.

A joint report by Professor Denis Rich, Associate Fellow of the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector (Columbia College, Chicago, USA) and Ekaterina Shekova (St. Petersburg State University of Film and Television) was dedicated to the "Baumol's cost disease" - the trend of an inevitable decline in theatre revenues and an increase in their costs, which worsened during the pandemic. This effect was described in 1966 by American scientists William Baumol and William Bowen. The closure of almost all theatres and concert halls in America during the first wave of the pandemic and the transition of 77% of theatre and concert institutions to online broadcasting has seriously affected one of the main sources of American theatre financing — private donations.

Ekaterina Shekova noted that Russian theatres mostly rely on state support. However, this is true only for large theatres, which also have more opportunities to switch to the digital format. Medium and small theatres in Russian regions are fully experiencing the effects of "Baumol's disease", primarily due to limited fundraising opportunities.

© iStock

The reports presented at the conference show that during the pandemic and its associated restrictions, the public demand for culture is increasing. But at the same time, the financial situation of the cultural institutions themselves is worsening, as they have to switch to online work. Civic initiatives, volunteering, and donations have become an indispensable resource for supporting cultural and art institutions.

This 10th anniversary conference of civil society researchers showed that the university’s third mission, when viewed in a broad, multidimensional sense, promotes the integration of science and public practices. Even under the constraints caused by the pandemic, platforms for the exchange of experience between scientists and practitioners from different countries and regions are still being created.

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