Shrinking Space for Civil Society and Philanthropy - New Reports and Trends

The enabling environment for civil society and philanthropy is rapidly changing. The Council on Foundations has held several calls to bring together grantmakers to share strategies for operating in a dynamic regulatory environment, including discussions about draft legislation in China and new regulations in Mexico.

This summer, several new global studies document this evolving global enabling environment for civil society and philanthropy. The Hudson Institute recently finalized a study on the legal/regulatory enabling environment for philanthropy, The Index of Philanthropic Freedom published in June 2015. In addition, they are in the process of developing their ninth edition of The Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances which measures the magnitude and sources of philanthropy from developed and emerging economies to the developing worldCIVICUS also recently released its 2015 State of Civil Society Report, which features a range of resources about changing operating environment for civil society globally.

During this webinar, the Council on Foundations in partnership with WINGS discussed the shrinking space for philanthropy and civil society globally. Additionally, the Hudson Institute and CIVICUS shared insights regarding current trends in the regulation of philanthropy and civil society around the world.


Helena Monteiro

Executive Director


Carol Adelman 

Director of Center for Global Prosperity
Hudson Institute

Mandeep Tiwani

Head of Policy and Research


Natalie Ross

Member Relations Director, Global
Council on Foundations


Webinar Summary: Shrinking Space for Civil Society and Philanthropy – New Reports and Trends

On September 10, 2015, the Council on Foundation and WINGS co-hosted a webinar about the shrinking space for civil society and philanthropy. Speakers from CIVICUS and the Hudson Institute presented about two recent reports that document global trends in regulation of local civil society organizations and philanthropy:

2015 State of Civil Society Report– CIVICUS

2015 Index of Philanthropic FreedomHudson Institute

Mandeep Tiwani, Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, spoke first about a new State of Civil Society Report 2015. This report is published annually to analyze the overall environment in which civil society operates worldwide and its behavior over the past year. This report is a review of civil society and the conditions that contribute to its success or failure.

In 2015, the thematic section of the report was titled: “Resourcing Civil Society”, focusing on the challenges change-seeking civil society organizations face in their current environment. The general trend is that governments are cracking down on civil service organizations and creating environments that are not conducive to their work. There are substantial threats to the actions of civil society organizations in 96 countries. These threats range anywhere from legislation to physical violence. Even democracies were plagued by such actions this year, which exhibits how diverse the actors threatening civil society organizations are. Where civil service organizations sought to challenge and influence economies, civil freedoms, and cultural practices, amongst other things, they were met with prohibitive action from governments and non-state actors alike.

It is these organizations, “change-seeking CSOs”, that are the most affected, because they highlight corruption, human rights violations, and other aspects of their societies that many would prefer not to expose. Government regulations have vastly decreased their resourcing capacity; international funding restrictions are on the rise, often using similar legislation that allows governments to arbitrarily target certain CSOs. Additionally, in a time when the world economy is unconfident and funders are austere, they are prioritizing service delivery CSOs because they can show much clearer results than change-seeking CSOs and advocacy groups can.

Despite these challenges, civil society was active in the past year. Frontline responses to Ebola in West Africa, crises in Syria, Gaza, and Yemen, peacebuilding in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and natural disaster response in Vanuatu, Serbia, and Nepal exemplified how quickly and effectively civil society can still react to crises worldwide. Civil society was also influential in mobilizing citizens to take political action in a number of states, including Greece, Spain, Hong Kong, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and even the United States. Global solutions to broken governance were a third key area of civil society action in the past year. CSOs helped facilitate the global response to climate change, encouraged the passage of a number of trade treaties, and contributed to establishing the Sustainable Development Goals as a post-2015 agenda.

Overall, CIVICUS observed the following trends:

-          Private philanthropy remains robust.

-          Community, grassroots initiatives are growing.

-          Trust remains in faith-based giving.

-          Crowd funding is challenging, but offers a real opportunity for CSOs to react to resourcing challenges.

-          Social enterprises combining philanthropy with entrepreneurship are growing rapidly.

-          Volunteerism is a key resource in austere times and the global south needs to increase its usage of volunteers.

In conclusion, the CIVICUS report suggest that a fundamental rethink of how CSOs resource would be beneficial, suggesting that they should move from project-specific funding to general purpose funding that allows CSOs flexibility in their operations. CSOs need to assert their autonomy by diversifying their resources. They also need to invest in their accountability to increase trust and decrease corruption both in perception and in reality.

Carol Adelman, director of the Center for Global Prosperity at the Hudson Institute, spoke on Hudson Institute’s new report, The Index of Philanthropic Freedom 2015. With this publication, Hudson Institute set out to measure, quantify, and compare the ease of global philanthropic giving in a number of countries around the world. Hudson Institute sought this data for a number of reasons. While philanthropy and remittances are an increasingly important part of the financial flows from developed to developing countries, ease of giving has never been systematically measured across a large sample size on specific philanthropic indicators. Organizing this information on barriers and incentives for global giving makes it easier to recognize, study, and implement policy changes.

Philanthropy is increasingly becoming recognized as an integral part of development. This report allows governments to see how they are being restrictive to philanthropy and, therefore, development. Expert opinion surveys from 64 countries show a number of trends and themes. Foreign exchange regulations and capital controls were listed as a significant barrier in 16 of the surveyed countries. Illicit financial flow legislation was a barrier in 33 of the surveyed countries. Discriminatory treatment of foreign donations has begun to spread from Russia to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Also, restrictions on the ability of a CSO to incorporate and operate have increased substantially. Hudson Institute’s scoring of CSO regulations, tax regulations, and cross-border regulations, combined with the qualitative analyses of country experts, has created a comprehensive data set by which to compare the feasibility of global giving in different countries worldwide.

These reports clearly show how conversation and reporting on this topic are increasing. There is an increased understanding that these regulations are truly harmful to the philanthropic sector and action needs to be taken. Politicians and international human rights groups are becoming increasingly aware, but the single most important step is to increase public awareness. Public support for the work of CSOs and foundations will be the most effective way to affect policy that is conducive to the international philanthropic sector.