A striking upsurge is under way around the globe in organized voluntary activity and the creation of private, nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations. From the developed countries of North America, Europe and Asia to the developing societies of Africa, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc, people are forming associations, foundations and similar institutions to deliver human services, promote grass-roots economic development, prevent environmental degradation, protect civil rights and pursue a thousand other objectives formerly unattended or left to the state.

The scope and scale of this phenomenon are immense. Indeed, we are in the midst of a global "associational revolution" that may prove to be as significant to the latter twentieth century as the rise of the nation-state was to the latter nineteenth. The upshot is a global third sector: a massive array of self-governing private organizations, not dedicated to distributing profits to shareholders or directors, pursuing public purposes outside the formal apparatus of the state. The proliferation of these groups may be permanently altering the relationship between states and citizens, with an impact extending far beyond the material services they provide. Virtually all of America’s major social movements, for example, whether civil rights, environmental, consumer, women’s or conservative, have had their roots in the nonprofit sector. The growth of this phenomenon is all the more striking given the simultaneous decline in the more traditional forms of political participation, such as voting, party affiliation and union membership.

The rise of the third sector springs from a variety of pressures, from individual citizens, outside institutions and governments themselves. It reflects a distinct set of social and technological changes, as well as a long-simmering crisis of confidence in the capability of the state. Broad historical changes have thus opened the way for alternative institutions that can respond more effectively to human needs. With their small scale, flexibility and capacity to engage grass-roots energies, private nonprofit organizations have been ideally suited to fill the resulting gap. The consequence is a sweeping process of change that closely resembles the "third wave" of democratic political revolutions identified by Samuel Huntington, but that goes well beyond it, affecting democratic and authoritarian regimes, developed and developing countries alike.


Nonprofit organizations are incredibly diverse, and analyzing their upsurge at the global level is no simple task. A lack of systematic data, varying terminology and widely divergent functions make these organizations hard to identify from place to place. Serious definitional problems are compounded by the varied treatment of these organizations in national legal structures, with some countries explicitly providing for the incorporation of charitable or nonprofit organizations and others doing so partially or not at all. Official listings of such organizations are therefore notoriously incomplete, and their treatment in national economic statistics is grossly imperfect.

Ideological blinders have also obscured a clear assessment of the nonprofit sector’s true scope and role. For much of the past 50 years, politicians on both the political right and left have tended to downplay these institutions. The left has done so to justify the expansion of the welfare state; the right to justify attacks on the state as the destroyer of private "mediating institutions." The rise of the welfare state thus crowded out the nonprofit sector from both public discussion and scholarly inquiry even as this sector continued to grow.

Given these problems, it is hard to know whether the current upsurge is new or simply the rediscovery of a sector long ignored. Both processes are doubtless at work. But the evidence of a major new blossoming of third-sector institutions at the global level is compelling. In the developed countries, for example, a significant expansion of citizen activism has been evident for several decades. A 1982 survey of nonprofit human service organizations in 16 American communities showed that 65 percent had been created since 1960. The number of private associations has similarly skyrocketed in France, with more than 54,000 formed in 1987 alone, compared to about 11,000 per year in the 1960s. Recent estimates record some 275,000 charities in the United Kingdom, with income approaching five percent of gross national product. In Italy, research conducted in 1985 showed that 40 percent of the organizations had been formed since 1977.

This phenomenon is even more dramatic in the developing world, where some 4,600 Western voluntary organizations are now active, providing support to approximately 20,000 indigenous nongovernmental organizations. In India, the Village Awakening Movement, which grew out of the Gandhian tradition, is active in thousands of villages. Bangladesh boasts approximately 10,000 registered nongovernmental organizations. In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodala Shramadana movement has organized more than 8,000 villages to produce small-scale improvement projects. Elsewhere, some 21,000 nonprofit organizations have formed in the Philippines; nearly 100,000 Christian Base Communities built on local action groups now dot the Brazilian countryside; some 27,000 nonprofit organizations are now reported in Chile and 2,000 in Argentina; and recent estimates indicate that 30 percent of Kenya’s capital development since the 1970s has come from the Harambee movement, which has led local communities to initiate a wide variety of development projects.

Similar developments have also been evident in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Well before the dramatic political events that captured world attention in 1989, important changes were taking place beneath the surface of East European society, and voluntary organizations were very much at the center of them. Indeed, a veritable "second society" had come into existence, consisting of thousands, perhaps millions, of networks of people who provided each other mutual aid to cope with the economy of scarcity in which they lived. By the late 1970s, these networks were already acquiring political significance.

This process has only accelerated since the overthrow of the communist governments. As of 1992, several thousand foundations were registered with governmental authorities in Poland. In Hungary, 6,000 foundations and 11,000 associations had been registered by mid-1992. A Foundation Forum was established in Bulgaria in 1991, linking close to 30 newly created private groups. Although slower in the former Soviet Union, this process has recently accelerated there as well. A Foundation for Social Innovations was formed in 1986, in the second year of perestroika, as a way to translate citizen initiatives into effective social action. Since then dozens of other foundations and nonprofit organizations have been created, to assist gifted and talented children, to protest the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to call attention to the disappearance of the Aral Sea, to encourage cultural heterogeneity, and for dozens of other purposes.


How can we explain the extraordinary growth and pervasiveness of this phenomenon? Pressures to expand the voluntary sector seem to be coming from at least three different sources: from "below" in the form of spontaneous grass-roots energies, from the "outside" through the actions of various public and private institutions, and from "above" in the form of government policies.

The most basic force is that of ordinary people who decide to take matters into their own hands and organize to improve their conditions or seek basic rights. This factor is most clearly at work in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Activists there describe their efforts as creating a "civil society," one in which individuals have the right not only to speak out but also to organize together. The intricate networks of mutual assistance that developed under communism have since provided the pathways for this new democratic fervor. As Andras Biro, a Hungarian activist, has put it: "We are witnessing an escape from the enforced immaturity of the socialist system. For the first time in 40 years we are reclaiming responsibility for our lives."

Similar pressures have been at work in the Third World. Neighborhood improvement associations have reportedly taken root in a sizable portion of Latin America’s 20,000 or so squatter settlements. Elsewhere, cooperatives, women’s groups, craft and housing associations and mutual aid groups have grown rapidly over the past two decades. For example, one Indian environmental movement, Chipko, emerged from the spontaneous efforts of rural residents to save their dying forest by literally linking their arms around the trees.1 The General Federation of Iraqi Women, created in 1968, took advantage of the ruling party’s stated ideology emphasizing women’s equality in order to organize farming cooperatives and other economic initiatives.2 In Africa as well, a "new wind" of popular democratic protest has stimulated the formation of private self-help groups to improve local living conditions.

There have also been a variety of outside pressures: from the church, Western private voluntary organizations and official aid agencies. In Latin America especially, the Catholic Church has been a significant contributor. Beginning in the 1950s, various dioceses set up charitable organizations to help the urban and rural poor. But following the Castro victory, younger priests pushed for a more radical approach that was ultimately endorsed at the Second Vatican Council and set in motion at a Catholic bishop’s conference in Colombia in 1968. The result was the formation throughout Latin America of thousands of communidades eclesiasticas de base engaging local priests in the struggle for social justice. Similarly, under Pope Paul II Catholic churches in Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow and elsewhere in Eastern Europe provided a crucial neutral meeting ground and source of moral support for those agitating for change in the latter 1980s. The Lutheran Church played a comparable role in East Germany.

Numerous Northern private voluntary organizations have also contributed to the growth of the third sector in the developing world. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, many such organizations from America and especially Canada and Europe shifted from their traditional emphasis on humanitarian relief to a new focus on "empowerment." Traditional U.S. organizations such as Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, newer organizations such as Oxfam America and Coordination in Development, and larger foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford and Aga Khan increasingly took up this approach. Besides delivering $4.7 billion of assistance by the mid-1980s, these Northern groups provided the moral support for a thickening network of some 20,000 indigenous nonprofit organizations in the Third World. Similar groups made comparable contributions to third-sector development in Eastern Europe.

Official aid agencies have supplemented and, to a considerable degree, subsidized these private initiatives. Since the mid-1960s, congressional critics of U.S. foreign assistance programs have placed increasing emphasis on involving the Third World poor in development activities and on aiding indigenous organizations and the U.S.-based groups working with them. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee has adopted "participatory development" as its strategy for the 1990s. Even the World Bank, which had traditionally given only sporadic support to private voluntary organizations, recently acknowledged the "explosive emergence of nongovernmental organizations as a major collective actor in development activities" and formed a voluntary-organization advisory committee with extensive Third World involvement.3

Finally, pressures to form nonprofit organizations have come from above, from official government policy circles. Most visibly, the conservative governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher made support for the voluntary sector a central part of their strategies to reduce government social spending. But even socialist governments have moved in the same direction. President Francois Mitterrand thus liberalized French laws on charitable giving and created a special state secretary for the "economie sociale," or mutual, cooperative and associational sector. Norway’s Labor government recently issued a long-term program stressing the importance of voluntary organizations as mediating institutions between the individual and the larger society. In Japan, a 1990 law permits corporations to deduct charitable contributions for the first time.

Such government pressures have also figured prominently in the Third World and former Soviet bloc. From Thailand to the Philippines, governments have sponsored farmers’ cooperatives and other private organizations. Egyptian and Pakistani five-year plans have stressed the participation of nongovernmental organizations as a way to ensure popular participation in development. Even the embryonic nonprofit sector in China has benefited from official encouragement, beginning with the landmark Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978, which signaled the start of a process of reform to tap individual initiative and creativity in Chinese society.


Why has this flourishing of third-sector activity occurred now? Four crises and two revolutionary changes have converged both to diminish the hold of the state and to open the way for this increase in organized voluntary action.

The first of these impulses is the perceived crisis of the modern welfare state. Over the past decade or so the system of governmental protection against old age and economic misfortune that had taken shape by the 1950s in the developed West no longer appeared to be working. Reduced global economic growth in the 1970s helped give rise to the belief that social welfare spending, which had grown substantially in previous decades, was crowding out private investment. The conviction coalesced that an overloaded and over-bureaucratized government was incapable of performing the expanded tasks being assigned to it. The politics of the welfare state, moreover, regularly generated pressures for expanded government services that exceeded the willingness of the public to pay for them. Far from simply protecting individuals against unreasonable risk, the welfare state, many believed, was instead stifling initiative, absolving people of personal responsibility and encouraging dependence.

Accompanying the crisis of the welfare state has been a crisis of development. The oil shocks of the 1970s and the recession of the early 1980s dramatically changed the outlook for developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and parts of Latin America average per capita incomes began to fall. Indeed, economic performance in the least developed parts of these regions dropped so precipitously that, given their high rates of population growth, average output per person by 1990 was some five percent lower than it had been two decades before. Although progress has been made in some places, most notably the Pacific rim and parts of Latin America, the problems of development have grown so severe that today every fifth person on the globe lives in absolute poverty.

These discouraging realities stimulated considerable rethinking about the requirements for economic progress. One result has been a new-found interest in "assisted self-reliance" or "participatory development," an aid strategy that stresses the engagement of grass-roots energies and enthusiasms through a variety of nongovernmental organizations. By making the poor active participants in development projects, this approach has scored significant productivity gains while circumventing what in many places are weak state institutions. The result is a growing consensus about the limitations of the state as an agent of development and the advantages of engaging third-sector institutions as well.

A global environmental crisis has also stimulated greater private initiative. The continuing poverty of developing countries has led the poor to degrade their immediate surroundings in order to survive. Along with wasteful practices and inattention on the part of the wealthy, this has led to serious environmental degradation. Between 1950 and 1983, 38 percent of Central America’s and 24 percent of Africa’s forests disappeared, and the pace of this decline accelerated in the early 1980s. Overuse now threatens to turn to desert two-fifths of Africa’s nondesert land, one-third of Asia’s and one-fifth of Latin America’s. In some areas, such as Central and Eastern Europe, acid rain and related air and water pollution have endangered food supplies and significantly reduced life expectancy.

As these and other aspects of the environmental crisis have become apparent, citizens have grown increasingly frustrated with government and eager to organize their own initiatives. The stunning rise of Green parties in Western Europe is one sign of this response. Similarly, environmental degradation was one of the prime motivations for the emergence of an embryonic nonprofit sector in Eastern Europe, with ecology clubs active in Poland, Hungary, Russia and the Czech Republic.

Finally, a fourth crisis, that of socialism, has also contributed to the rise of the third sector. While the promise of socialism had long been suspect, the replacement of laggard economic growth with actual regression in the mid-1970s helped destroy what limited legitimacy the communist system had retained. This failure ushered in a search for new ways to satisfy unmet social and economic needs. While this search helped lead to the formation of market-oriented cooperative enterprises, it also stimulated extensive experimentation with a host of nongovernmental organizations offering services and vehicles for self-expression outside the reaches of an increasingly discredited state.

Beyond these four crises, two further developments also explain the recent surge of third-sector organizing. The first is the dramatic revolution in communications that took place during the 1970s and 1980s. The invention or widespread dissemination of the computer, fiber-optic cable, fax, television and satellites opened even the world’s most remote areas to the expanded communications links required for mass organization and concerted action. This development, moreover, was accompanied by a significant increase in education and literacy. Between 1970 and 1985, adult literacy rates in the developing world rose to 60 percent from 43 percent. Among males, they reached 71 percent.

The combined expansion of literacy and communications has made it far easier for people to organize and mobilize. Communications between capitals and hinterlands that once required days now takes only minutes. Authoritarian regimes that had successfully controlled their own communications networks have grown powerless to stop the flow of information through satellite dishes and faxes. Isolated activists can therefore more easily strengthen their resolve, exchange experiences and maintain links with sympathetic colleagues in their own countries and abroad.

The final factor critical to the growth of the third sector was the considerable global economic growth that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s, and the bourgeois revolution that it brought with it. During this period, the world economy grew at the rate of five percent per year, with all regions sharing in the expansion. In fact, the growth rate of Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R. and the developing countries actually exceeded that of the industrial market economies. This growth not only allowed for material improvement and engendered a new set of popular expectations but also helped create in Latin America, Asia and Africa a sizable urban middle class whose leadership was critical to the emergence of private nonprofit organizations. Thus if economic crisis ultimately provoked the middle class to action, this prior economic growth created the middle class that could organize to respond.


Despite the immense expectations that have been placed upon the third sector, it is still far from clear how effectively it can respond to current opportunities. For all its recent dynamism, this sector remains vulnerable to a variety of internal tensions and external constraints. What is more, a number of misperceptions impede its ability to deal effectively with the real challenges it faces. How the sector evolves will depend in large part on how well the myths about it are understood, how the sector balances the trade-offs it faces, and how other institutions respond.

The first of these misperceptions is the "myth of pure virtue." The nonprofit sector has gained prominence as a fundamentally flexible and trustworthy vehicle for the realization of elemental human yearnings for self-expression, self-help, participation and mutual aid. With roots very often in religious and moral teachings, it has acquired a saintly self-perception and persona, and a certain romanticism now surrounds its presumed ability to change people’s lives.

Without denying the fundamental validity of this image, it is nevertheless important to recognize that these institutions have other sides as well. For all their much-vaunted flexibility, nonprofit organizations remain organizations. As they grow in scale and complexity, they are vulnerable to all the limitations that afflict other bureaucratic institutions, unresponsiveness, cumbersomeness and routinization. Nonprofit organizations may be less prone to these disabilities than government agencies, but they are hardly immune to the inevitable tensions that arise between flexibility and effectiveness, grass-roots control and administrative accountability.

Support for the nonprofit sector has at times been used to rationalize assaults on government social welfare spending, as was the case in the United Sates in the 1980s. Similarly mixed motivations have contributed to the growth of the voluntary sector in the developing world. Far from an instrument of grass-roots independence, nonprofit organizations have sometimes functioned as vehicles for extending the influence of national political leaders. Moreover, nonprofit organizations may perform an essentially "system maintenance" function. A study of the Harambee movement in Kenya, for example, notes that while Harambee channels some highly visible private wealth into socially useful projects, it also serves to "justify the accumulation of wealth and power and the perpetuation of inequities."4 More generally, as Brian Smith has argued, even change-oriented nonprofit organizations can bolster the position of local elites by helping to "harness the energies of regime opponents from the middle class, which might have been channeled into more radically political or even revolutionary alternatives." Nonprofit initiatives, he writes, are often used to signal "foreign critics that authoritarian, one-party or elite-controlled governments allow a certain degree of pluralism and space for private initiative in their societies."5

A closely related misperception is the "myth of voluntarism," the belief that true nonprofit organizations rely chiefly, even exclusively, on private voluntary action and philanthropic support. This myth is particularly pervasive in American thinking about the nonprofit sector. It is undergirded by a conservative political philosophy that sees an inherent conflict between the state and "mediating" voluntary institutions. In this line of thinking, the growth of the state poses a fundamental challenge to voluntary groups, robbing them of functions and ultimately leading to their demise. The key to the expansion of the third sector, then, is to reduce the role of the state.

In fact, however, the relationship between government and the nonprofit sector has been characterized more by cooperation than conflict, as government has turned extensively to the nonprofit sector to assist it in meeting human needs. In the United States, reliance on the nonprofit sector is part of a broader pattern in which the government pursues much of its domestic policy through "third parties", colleges, universities, research institutes, commercial banks, etc. Nonprofit organizations’ distinctive character as semipublic institutions makes them favorite partners in this system of "third-party government." Government has thus emerged as a major source of financial support for America’s nonprofit sector, outdistancing private philanthropy by almost two to one. In other advanced countries, government support is even more pronounced.

Unfortunately, this widespread partnership has escaped the notice of many observers. As a result, the myth of pure voluntarism threatens to consign the nonprofit sector to a more marginal role than might otherwise be the case. Meager local resources and the profound sense of fatalism and suspicion that often envelops the poor mean that depending chiefly on a spontaneous upsurge of voluntary activity almost ensures failure. Even in developed countries, where the scope of private charitable support is far greater, such support often comes with strings attached. While voluntarism and private giving are vital to the special character of the sector, they are best seen as just one of several potential sources of support.

Another misconception is "the myth of immaculate conception," the notion that nonprofit organizations are essentially new in most parts of the world. While recent years have witnessed a dramatic upsurge in organized voluntary activity, such activity has deep historical roots in virtually every part of the world. Such activity was evident in China in antiquity and was strengthened and institutionalized under Buddhism from at least the eighth century. In Japan, philanthropic activity can also be traced to the Buddhist period, and the first modern Japanese foundation, the Society of Gratitude, was established in 1829, almost a century before the first American foundation. In Eastern Europe, too, the recent emergence of nonprofit organizations builds on a rich philanthropic tradition that long predated the communist takeover. Recent developments thus represent not simply the emergence of wholly new arrangements but, in significant measure, the reemergence of earlier patterns.

Careful efforts must thus be made to acknowledge the nonprofit sector’s peculiar historical roots and to recognize existing traditional institutions based on tribe and caste. These roots are quite substantial, even in institutional settings such as Africa, where the weakness of the national state has long obscured the existence of a vibrant associational life that predated the colonial era. For the leaders of nonprofit organizations, the task is to find ways to utilize traditional ties and institutions but mobilize them in support of new forms of action.


The nonprofit sector has clearly arrived as a major actor on the world scene, but it has yet to make its mark as a serious presence in public consciousness, policy circles, the media or scholarly research. For emerging third-sector organizations to be taken seriously by others, however, they must take themselves seriously first. Nongovernmental organizations must give greater sensitivity to the trade-offs that exist between voluntarism and professionalism, between the informality that gives these organizations their special character and the institutionalization necessary to translate individual victories into permanent achievements. Evaluations of the performance of nongovernmental organizations in developing countries, for example, regularly credit these organizations with the ability to reach outlying communities, promote participation, innovate and operate at low cost but fault them for their limited replicability, lack of technical capacity and isolation from broader policy considerations.

Managers of third-sector organizations will have to give more attention to training and technical assistance, and those providing support to these organizations will have to go beyond "feel-good philanthropy" and short-term project grants to long-term institutional support. The third sector has clearly come of age on the global scene, but it must now find ways to strengthen its institutional capacities and contribute more meaningfully to the solution of major problems, all without losing its popular base and flexible capacity for change. Finally, perhaps the most decisive determinant of third-sector growth will be the relationship that nonprofit organizations can forge with government. The task for third-sector organizations is to find a modus vivendi with government that provides sufficient legal and financial support while preserving a meaningful degree of independence and autonomy.

"Among the laws that rule human societies," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote 150 years ago, "there is one that seems more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of condition is increased." A century and a half later a veritable associational revolution seems to be under way at the global level. The resulting surge of interest in nonprofit organizations has opened the gates to vast reservoirs of human talent and energy, even while it has created dangers of stalemate and dispute. While it is far from clear what must be done to keep these gates open, a crucial first step is a better understanding of the dramatic process under way and the immense new challenges it represents.


1 Julie Fisher, "Micropolitics: Third World Development Organizations and the Evolution of Pluralism," paper prepared for the International Symposium on the Nonprofit Sector, Bad Honef, Germany, June 10-13, 1987, p. 5.

2 Shaida A. El Baz, "Historical and Institutional Development of Arab NGOs," paper prepared for the Third Annual International Research Conference on the Nonprofit Sector, Indianapolis, March 15-17, 1992.

4 Barbara Thomas, "Development Through Harambee; Who Wins and Who Loses? Rural Self-Help Projects in Kenya," World Development, Autumn 1987, p. 477.

5 Brian H. Smith, More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 277.

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