What is Civil Society?

Jack Krupansky
39 min readOct 27, 2017

This informal paper offers a brief introduction to the concept of civil society, sometimes referred to as the third sector, the organized portions of society distinct from the government and business sectors.

Civil society is commonly associated with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), but non-NGO organizations play roles in civil society as well.

There are several distinct meanings of civil society:

  1. Traditional notion of modern society as we know it, as opposed to barbarous disorder, dictatorial or authoritarian rule, and lack of democratic institutions and the fair rule of law.
  2. Governance of a modern society.
  3. Non-military governance of society. Civilian rule.
  4. The essential role of civility in society. A civil society. I have a separate companion paper, What is a Civil society (Civility)? on that meaning.
  5. Postmodern notion of the third sector, all social organizations outside of government and business that are providing services or advocating for the rest of society rather than their own interests.
  6. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in particular.

This paper will focus on only the last two meanings.

Some view civil society as strictly equivalent to NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), but this is not a universal view. There are civil society actors, such as foundations, labor unions, religions, and the media, which may not be true NGOs. I’ve written a separate paper on NGOs, What is an NGO (nongovernmental organization)? That paper should be considered a foundation for this paper, although some of the core concepts will be repeated here.

Although many of the examples in this paper are from the U.S., the intent of this paper is to cover civil society in other countries as well, including and especially in emerging, transitional, and struggling democracies. After all, civil society is very strong in the U.S. and other western-style democracies, but much more urgently needed in the latter.

More important than just what civil society is is what it does:

  1. Filling gaps in services. Providing services not provided adequately by government or business, especially to marginalized or underserved groups.
  2. Watchdogs. Keeping an eye on government and business, ever alert for corruption, waste, violations of rights, and inequalities.
  3. Ethical guardians. Monitoring, detecting, reporting, and keeping a focus on ethical behavior in government and business.
  4. Advocating for transparency and accountability of both government and business.
  5. Advocating for the marginalized and disenfranchised.
  6. Raising awareness of public policy issues.
  7. Correcting democracy deficits. Countering corruption, weak legal structure and lack of clear and consistent rule of law, lack of inclusiveness, and human rights violations.

Put more simply, civil society has two distinctive roles in society:

  1. Providing services. Beyond the scope of government and business, especially for the underserved.
  2. Agents of change. Advocating for change, especially for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

There is some dispute as to whether certain types of organizations should be considered civil society due to various conflicts of interest or self interest, such as:

  • For-profit media. More of a business, focused on the profit motive, rather than having the general interests of society at heart.
  • Media associated with political parties, or at least a dominant political party.
  • Religions. Pursue the interests of their members, but not necessarily non-members.
  • Labor unions. Pursue the interests of their members, but not typically non-members.
  • Professional associations. Pursue the interests of their members, but not typically non-members.
  • Trade associations. Pursue the interests of their members, which are businesses, but not typically non-members.
  • Sports teams or clubs. Pursue the interests of their members and fans, but not typically non-members or non-fans.
  • Clubs in general. Pursue the interests of their members, but not typically non-members.

Generally speaking, if an organization is not clearly government or business and has the interests of society as a whole at heart, then it is civil society.

Political parties? That gets complicated. Details to follow.

Part of a larger project

This paper isn’t my final word on civil society. It’s only a small part of a larger project. My previous paper, What is an NGO (nongovernmental organization)? was the start. The main work will eventually be a paper entitled Elements of Civil Society, which will build on my previous papers Elements of Society and Elements of Government.

The next installment may simply be my raw notes on civil society so that people can access what I have found in my research without having to wait for the full Elements of Civil Society paper.

I also expect to produce a paper focused on The Role of Civil Society in National Security. And a paper focused on The Role of Civil Society in U.S. Foreign Policy. And something on Democratization. And who knows what else since this is such a large project.

The essential point of the project is to shine some light on the key role of civil society in modern government and society.

I’ve been working on this project for about 18 months so far, since the spring of 2016.

Traditional civil society

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries when modern, western-style democracies were a new and novel concept, the term civil society was simply the common term for referencing these new, preferred forms for organizing the society of a country.

Once modern, western-style democracies had firmly taken root, there was no longer a need to have this special term for describing what was now the norm.

So, the traditional usage of the term civil society was to refer to the first three meanings from the list given in the introduction:

  1. Modern society as we know it, as opposed to barbarous disorder, dictatorial or authoritarian rule, and lack of democratic institutions and the fair rule of law.
  2. Governance of a modern society.
  3. Non-military governance of society. Civilian rule.

This paper does not focus on those three meanings, which are covered in the two companion papers Elements of Society and Elements of Government.

Postmodern notion of civil society as the third sector

While the traditional notion of civil society is focused on the whole of society, including the whole of government, and the whole of business, the postmodern notion of civil society which took root in the post-World War II era is much more focused on strictly the non-government and non-business aspects of society. That is the focus of this paper.

Third sector

Civil society is sometimes referred to as the third sector of society, with government and business being the other two sectors.

Civil society can be thought of as an integrating force or glue to facilitate the evolution and smooth operation of those two main sectors.

The spirit of civil society

The true spirit of civil society is not simply that an organization serves some useful purpose for its members, but that the primary beneficiaries of the services of the organization are society at large, or at least some substantial subgroup or groups of society, but well beyond the narrow interests of the immediate members of the organization.

Generally, civil society functions and acts to protect, preserve, pursue, and progress the common good of society, of all people of society.

Generally, government and business will function and act to protect, preserve, and pursue the status quo of society. Sure, change and innovation do occur on occasion, but generally government and business functionaries will be happiest just keeping the existing trains running on time.

That said, civil society has a more ambitious agenda. Good enough is not good enough for civil society. Better and best are the goals of civil society. The true spirit of civil society.

Alexis de Tocqueville and the American penchant for voluntary associations

French political and social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted back in the 1830’s and 1840’s how passionate Americans were for forming and joining voluntary associations. What today we would call civil society.

As opposed to raw individualism, with each individual and their family on their own, fending off the intrusions of an impersonal government, voluntary associations empowered the people, giving them voice and a sense of influence, power, and community that only an elite few holding the reins of government power could otherwise experience.

Not all voluntary associations would qualify as civil society as interpreted by this paper. An association would need to provide services or advocate for the rest of society rather than simply the interests of its members. This would exclude private clubs, sports teams, professional or trade associations, and even neighborhood asociations. Not that such voluntary associations are not valued contributions to society, but simply that they don’t represent the full spirit of civil society.

What does civil society do?

Civil society — the postmodern notion of civil society — performs a number of functions for society:

  • Filling gaps in services, providing services not provided adequately by government or business, especially to marginalized, disenfranchised, or underserved groups.
  • Advocating on behalf of citizens and minority, marginalized, or disenfranchised groups.
  • Advocating for the correction of democracy deficits in general. More on that later in this paper.
  • Advocating for human rights.
  • Advocating for good governance.
  • Advocating for transparency and accountability of both government and business.
  • Fighting corruption.
  • Advocating for change.
  • Advocating for reform.
  • Advocating for maintenance of existing rights and services when government or business has a tendency to backslide.
  • Promotion of democracy, good governance, and human rights around the world.

The simplest formulation of the role of civil society is:

  1. Filling gaps in services, providing services not provided adequately by government or business, especially to marginalized or underserved groups.
  2. Advocating for the correction of democracy deficits.

Civil society actors

A civil society actor is any group or organization outside of government and business that seeks to provide a service to fill gaps in government and commercial services or seeks to advocate for change in governance.

Think tanks, activist organizations, and other organized groups outside of government and business effectively constitute civil society.

Some groups may be informal and unorganized rather than formal organizations.

Civil society actors differ from civil society organizations in that they may have a primary purpose which is not civil society per se.

Categories of civil society actors, which aren’t NGOs include:

  1. Religions
  2. Labor unions
  3. Philanthropic foundations, although they tend to give grants to NGOs
  4. Think tanks
  5. Professional organizations
  6. Trade associations
  7. Industry groups
  8. Standard setting organizations
  9. Political parties
  10. Youth organizations
  11. Clubs
  12. Sports leagues, associations, and teams
  13. Members-only service organizations
  14. Private schools, colleges, and universities (public education is a part of government)

That doesn’t mean that all organizations on that list are necessarily civil society actors, but simply that they could be. And they would be only to the extent that they fulfill one or both of the functions of civil society:

  1. Providing services that fill gaps in the services provided by government and and business.
  2. Advocating for the interests of individuals and groups outside of their own members.

Civil society organizations (CSO)

Civil society organizations (CSO) are the subset of civil society actors which are dedicated to and were established solely for the purpose of being a civil society actors.

This would exclude religious or faith-based organizations and labor unions which have a primary mission beyond civil society activity. Some organizations do consider these groups to be CSOs as well.

CSOs are the purest form of civil society. In most contexts, CSOs are the intended reference to civil society. In other contexts, non-CSO civil society actors are included as well. I’m sorry that that may seem a little confusing, but that’s the reality.

The terms civil society actor and civil society organization are frequently used interchangeably even though they are not exactly the same. Civil society actors is the more inclusive term.

As previously mentioned, NGOs are a key part of civil society. This earns them the categorization of being civil society organizations (CSOs.)

Traditional organizations may be active in civil society as well, earning them the companion categorization of civil society actors. All CSOs are civil society actors, but not all civil society actors are CSOs or NGOs.

The UN considers the concept of CSO to encompass not only NGOs, but institutions, foundations, and associations as well.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGO)

In general, nongovernmental organization (NGO) and civil society organization (CSO) are effectively synonymous. The former refers primarily to the technical structure of the organization while the latter emphasizes the organization’s role in civil society.

Social justice, economic justice, and racial justice

Organizations focused on social justice, economic justice, and racial justice (or any other kind of justice) would by definition be part of civil society and considered civil society organizations.

Filling gaps in services

Government and business would provide all needed services in an ideal society. But, even in the most democratic and prosperous societies of the modern world there are many services which are either not provided at all, or inadequately provided, especially to marginalized, disenfranchised, economically impoverished, or otherwise underserved groups. Civil society serves to address such gaps in services.

Service organizations

Filling gaps in services is not an exclusive role for civil society, but is a traditional role for civil society. What have traditionally been called service organizations.

Correcting democracy deficits

The more common democracy deficits include:

  • Corruption.
  • Weak legal structure and lack of clear and consistent rule of law.
  • Lack of inclusiveness.
  • Human rights violations.

Civil society has a significant role of advocacy and working to accomplish change and reform in these areas.

Five broad categories of approach can be pursued by civil society.

  1. Intellectual and polite social persuasion to influence politicians and voters.
  2. Peaceful protest to encourage change, still working through the normal electoral system.
  3. Aggressive protest to bully, intimidate, and coerce change, marginally outside of the normal electoral process.
  4. Disruptive protest to force change. Fully outside the normal electoral process. Borderline regime change.
  5. Force and violence to force change. True regime change.


A major function and strength of civil society actors is to keep an eye on government and business, ever alert for corruption, waste, violations of rights, and inequalities.

Ethical guardians

As part of their role as watchdogs, civil society actors excel in monitoring, detecting, reporting, and keeping a focus on ethical behavior in government and business.

Advocates for the marginalized and disenfranchised

In addition to keeping a watchful eye on government and business, civil society actors are fierce and tireless advocates for marginalized and disenfranchised segments of society which are not treated as full members of society or who have special needs or interests not fully met or addressed by society absent the efforts of civil society.

Raising awareness of public policy issues

The average person is far too busy in their daily life to invest any significant time in understanding public policy issues, including those which may affect their decisions when they vote in elections. Civil society plays a key role in helping people understand even the most complex of public policy issues.

Civil society has two distinct pathways for raising public awareness of public policy issues:

  1. Political parties lobby for their ideological, politically-motivated preferences.
  2. Non-political civil society organizations help educate the public on public policy issues.


Activist organizations are by definition considered civil society.

Activist and advocacy are generally treated as synonyms, although technically activism implies action, such as protests and boycotts, while advocacy is more generally focused on communication and conveying information, persuading through intellectual means. That said, a given activist or advocacy organization may be involved with both.

Political parties as civil society

Political parties are a curious hybrid. They are indeed part of civil society, but they can overlap with government at times, or at least they hope to be a part of government as much as possible.

They don’t have the power or authority that government has per se, but once their politicians get elected, they do have power and authority and are in fact part of government, and can no longer be considered civil society per se.

The party itself does not get elected, just individual politicians.

Once elected, politicians are then able to pursue the agenda or platform of the party. Or at least try to. Very often, party platforms and campaign promises fail to come to fruition.

A party which has won a dominant role in government, such as winning control of one or both houses of Congress and possibly the White House as well, can then be considered much more a part of government than being strictly and solely civil society.

At those times, it can certainly appear that the party is the government, which is not part of the definition of civil society. Not always, but it can and does happen.

Especially outside of the U.S., in emerging, transitioning, and struggling democracies, far too often a single party has a death-grip hold of government such that the party is absolutely no longer what we would call a functional part of civil society.

Another party which wins some role but not a dominant role in government then plays the role of an opposition party, which is even more of a hybrid. They have votes, some say, and some influence, possibly even able to broker deals, so in that very real sense they are part of government, but to the extent that they aren’t able to push their agenda successfully, they continue to play more of a civil society role.

Any parties which are not able to gain any significant presence in government have a much more clear civil society role.

Whether a party is a credible opposition party or mostly or completely out of power, they play traditional civil society advocacy roles:

  • Advocating in favor of particular policies.
  • Advocating in opposition to particular policies.
  • Advocating for unmet needs.
  • Advocating for the needs and interests of marginalized and disenfranchised groups.
  • Advocating for greater transparency.
  • Advocating for greater accountability.
  • Acting as watchdogs against bad governance.
  • Acting as ethical guardians.
  • Exposing corruption.
  • Advocating for change.
  • Advocating for reform.

The great beauty of civil society is that even relatively small organizations can play such advocacy roles. Playing such roles in the context of a political party, even if that party never gains substantial elective presence, leverages such roles.

It is not uncommon outside of the U.S. for marginal political parties to overlap with civil society.

Are political parties really part of civil society?

Some may prefer not to consider political parties to be part of civil society proper at all, especially for major parties which play a very significant role in government.

In essence, the boundary between government and major parties can be too blurred for some political parties to be considered as part of a very distinct and separate third sector.

This paper leaves the issue open, leaving it to the reader to decide for themselves whether they wish to treat political parties as necessarily part of civil society or necessarily excluded, or when exactly they would constitute civil society.

The real bottom line may be that an organization is civil society when and to the extent that the people feel that the organization is free from the control and influence of government and business and acting in the best interests of the people.

Political action committees (PACs) and political committees

Another gray area are Political action committees (PACs) and political committees. Nominally, they are not political parties per se, although they may be formed with the distinct intention of benefitting one or more political parties.

For the moment, they will be considered part of civil society, although not everyone will be comfortable saying so.

But to the extent that a PAC or political committee has a strong affiliation (or any sort of affiliation) with a business or business interests, that affiliation would argue against their being considered part of civil society.

The bottom line guidance is whether the organization benefits society overall or only the members or funders of the organization. The whole point of civil society is to benefit the common interest rather than any proprietary interest.

Vagueness of definition of civil society

The term civil society can be used to refer to any of these five distinct levels:

  1. All of society in an ideal society where everyone respects everyone else and government and business have a deep respect for common citizens so that there is no need for any distinct nongovernmental organizations. This ideal is not a reality in this world.
  2. All organizations outside of government, including business, media, religion, unions, nonprofit organizations, service organizations, and activist and advocacy organizations.
  3. All organizations outside of government and business. This is the so-called third sector.
  4. All organizations outside of government, business, and the traditional, for-profit media.
  5. All organizations outside of government, business, traditional media, religion, unions, and traditional service organizations. The focus is on activism, advocacy, promoting reform, and providing services to marginalized groups.

That last definition is a more common usage these days, but the preceding two definitions are somewhat common as well.

Take your pick whether to include:

  1. All media.
  2. Traditional media.
  3. Government-controlled or government-sponsored media.
  4. Political party-sponsored media.
  5. Non-profit media only.
  6. Alternative media focused on social change.
  7. Religions.
  8. Trade unions.
  9. Traditional service organizations.

The main choice is between:

  1. The simplest definition, the third sector, all organizations outside of government and business.
  2. The most restrictive definition, focused on activism, advocacy, promoting reform, and providing services to marginalized groups.

The System and The Establishment

As discussed in the companion paper Elements of Society, the formal, structural apparatus of society, including government, organizations sympathetic to government, and social norms compatible with government and those organizations is commonly known as The System. To some or even the majority that is a positive reference, while to others who feel disenfranchised or marginalized in some manner the reference instead has distinctly negative connotations.

The individuals who collectively operate The System are The Establishment, or simply the dominant elite of society.

Those who respect and follow the rules of the system know how to work the system to their advantage, while those who feel disenfranchised feel that the system is rigged and biased against them and that no amount of respect for or cooperation with the system will do them any good. For some, many, and even most, the system is the solution, but for a nontrivial minority or even a majority in some situations, the system itself is seen as the problem.

Disenfranchisement and alienation

Members of society may indeed feel empowered and well-served by the institutions of authority, The System, but some fraction of the populace may feel alienated, disenfranchised, ill-served, or simply disappointed with the institutions of authority. The latter groups may feel that change is needed.

Changing The System, The Establishment

Change may be needed in the form of additional or modified services, or a wholesale change may be needed.

As discussed in Elements of Government and Elements of Society, there are a variety of ways of changing The System and The Establishment. Many changes occur from within the system itself by The Establishment within The System. Some of those changes may be based on The Establishment’s own views of the needs of the populace and others for the survival or efficiency of The System itself.

Other changes may originate outside of The System, maybe even seeking to change The System in ways that The Establishment is not prepared to make of its own volition. Civil society is the common source or trigger of such change.

Coup and revolution

In the extreme, a coup or revolution may be needed to effect change if a majority of the populace seeks change that The Establishment is unwilling or unable to deliver.

Preferably, coup and revolution are bloodless. Sometimes they work out that way, but sometimes they don’t.

Civil society can and does play a role in coup and revolution.


Whether or not they lead to coups or revolutions, uprisings will typically involve civil society.

Civil society can play a strong role in mobilization of the people.

Agents of change

In modern, western-style societies, groups outside of The Establishment seeking to change The System are referred to as agents of change. They typically include:

  • Think tanks
  • Activist organizations
  • Non-establishment political parties

Collectively, they constitute a significant portion of civil society.

On rare occasion a non-establishment political party may indeed be successful, but generally these agents of change are unable to directly change the system by themselves. Generally they succeed at changing The System by raising awareness of the desired changes among both The Establishment itself and the populace so that either The Establishment enacts the desired change by itself in response to that heightened awareness and general social pressure, or when the populace elects politicians who promise to make such changes.

Common good

A key aspect of civil society is that it focuses on the common good, ensuring that any benefits from the activities of civil society accrue to the vast majority of average citizens rather than just a narrow minority.

In the case of service-oriented civil society actors, the direct benefits may well be specifically targeted at a relative small segment of society, such as the poor or those suffering from human rights abuses, but in such a way that society as a whole does indeed benefit at least indirectly.

Common good has two senses, first as an intangible quality of life that is widely available to all members of society, such as freedom, liberty, and equality, and second as a physical good or product or service that individuals may choose to utilize.

In the context of this paper, common good is used in the intangible sense that is also synonymous with collective good.

Collective good

Collective good and common good are commonly used as synonyms, trying to abstract away from narrow self-interest, but technically they are distinct although related. When used as synonyms, they refer to intangible qualities of life across all of society, such as freedom, liberty, and equality.

Technically, a collective good exists only in the aggregate for all of society, while a common good is a good that individuals can access on an individual basis. Examples of collective goods include defense, the social contract, and laws. Examples of common goods include education and services such as electricity and water.

In the context of this paper, collective good is used in the intangible sense that is also synonymous with common good.

Advocacy vs. service

Some civil society organizations exist primarily to provide a service where there are gaps in the services provided by The System.

Other CSOs exist primarily to advocate for change in The System, such as reform of policies or even a radical restructuring of The System or regime change.

It is technically possible to perform both functions, but a typical CSO has a clear focus on one or the other.

A service-oriented CSO may indeed advocate for the segments of society that it serves, but that’s a bit different from advocating for a more dramatic change in The System itself.

Antidote for government dysfunction

For some, civil society organizations are an antidote for what ails government.

Some see the system, government, as so horribly broken that normal government processes are unable, unwilling, or opposed to addressing social needs as they see them.

Shadow government

Some see civil society as a shadow for government, following government’s every move, focused on highlighting shortfalls of government and advocating for corrective changes.


Government itself should protect itself from corruption, but tends to be too large and complex for anti-corruption efforts to be sufficiently robust to satisfy many people.

Media is a second check on corruption in government.

Civil society organizations are an additional level of check on corruption in government.

Role of academia

The role of academia in civil society is more than a little blurred. Sometimes academia is part of The Establishment and sometimes academia has a distinctly anti-establishment role that is more closely aligned with civil society.

Academia has primary functions of education and research, so an academic institution is not a pure civil society organization.

Individual professors and programs may be very closely aligned with civil society interests, so that they are clearly civil society actors in a loose sense, but other professors and programs at even the same institution may well be working at odds with civil society.

Student groups are a fertile ground for anti-establishment efforts that may align closely with civil society efforts, so that they can in some cases legitimately be categorized as civil society actors even if they are not formally organized enough to be full-fledged civil society organizations.


Media outlets have the ability to shine a spotlight on questionable government practices, as well as on business and other organizations.

Media also has the tendency to take a side on any polarizing issues and policies, which helps to promote or denigrate approaches to issues and policies due to political bias of the particular outlet. Having a diverse variety of media outlets makes it possible for people to view all sides of any debate.

The media is not one monolithic bloc:

  1. Profit-based commercial media.
  2. Government-sponsored, funded, or even controlled media.
  3. Non-profit media.
  4. Party-affiliated media. Advocates for the interests of the party, its platform, its agenda, and its ideology.
  5. Alternative media. Focused on various social agendas.
  6. Social media. All manner of purposes, focuses, and agendas.

Independent media

Independent media can be a powerful and very useful part of civil society, but there is some potential ambiguity that must be confronted.

Independent media is by definition independent from government. By definition, independent media is not created by government, sponsored by government, funded by government, nor controlled by government.

The ambiguity comes into play when a media organization is a commercial entity, a for-profit business. In theory, civil society is supposed to be distinct from not only the government but from the business sector as well, but media as a business is not so clearly separated from business.

Nonprofit media does not have this ambiguity, so it is much more clearly independent media.

For-profit media

As I noted, this is an ambiguity as opposed to a clear distinction. It depends on the degree to which a for-profit media business keeps its own business separate from the meat and potatoes of the overall business sector.

A for-profit media outlet earns revenues, and hence profits, from two sources:

  1. Subscription revenues.
  2. Advertising revenues.

Subscription revenues are not a problem since they don’t create any dependence on the business sector of the economy.

Advertising can be problematic. It can present a conflict of interest. The concern is whether the interests of an advertiser may conflict with the journalistic efforts of the media outlet, causing the journalism to be slanted or stunted so as to enhance or at least not negatively impact advertising revenue from companies that may be impacted by the journalism.

The traditional solution has been the so-called Chinese Wall which in theory separates the advertising and editorial staff at the media outlet. Whether or how effective this approach is will be an ongoing debate.

In any case, nonprofit media is much more clearly independent media.

For-profit media motives

Great journalism seeks truth and seeks the betterment of society. Independent media fits this bill, but once you throw the profit motive into the mix, one has to wonder whether the media outlet is still as purely motivated by truth and betterment, or more focused or at least distracted by boosting revenues and lining pockets.

This potential conflict of interest will always dog for-profit media outlets. It’s kind of a permanent black eye that will never go away.

But it is what it is. We have to live with the media we have, not the media we wish we had.

In any case, this potential conflict of interest makes it problematic and ambiguous as to whether for-profit media should be categorized as being in the business sector or part of civil society.

The simple truth is that they have one leg in each of these two sectors.

The net result is that sometimes for-profit media will have a positive effect on civil society, while other times they will have a distinctly negative effect on civil society.

And far too often it will simply be unclear whose side a given for-profit media outlet is on.

Ideological political preferences of a media outlet

The ideological political preferences of the owners and managers of a media outlet also make the motives of the words and actions of the outlet somewhat suspect.

Are they trying too hard to prop up and support a particular political party?

Or trying too hard to attack and undermine the opponents of their preferred political party?

Are they too closely aligned with the ideology of the political party which is in power and controlling the government? This runs the risk of making the media outlet effectively an arm of the government, at least as long as that particular party remains in power.

Party-affiliated media

As a general proposition, media in the U.S. is not directly affiliated or controlled by any political party. Granted, there very commonly is a distinct ideological affinity between a given media outlet and their preferred political party. But even then, the political party itself doesn’t have any significant control over the media outlet. If anything, it is usually the media which seeks to influence the party and its policies.

In other countries, such as Turkey, it is more common for a media outlet to be directly controlled by a political party.

As long as the party is not in power, the independence of the media from government is kept intact and the media outlet can still be considered part of civil society. But when the party controlling the media outlet is in power, the independence from government gets very murky indeed, making it distinctly unclear whether the media outlet is effectively an arm of the government or still has enough independence from direct government control to still be considered as true civil society.

Four independences of media

To reemphasize, there are four distinct forms of independence of media:

  1. From government.
  2. From business.
  3. From the profit motive.
  4. From ideological and partisan political influence.

Nonprofit media (civil society media)

We like to think of PBS and NPR as nonprofit media, and they are to some extent, but they are in fact government-sponsored, as detailed in the next section.

Some examples of civil society media (non-government, non-business) in the U.S.:

PBS, NPR, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting

PBS and NPR are certainly well-known nonprofit media outlets, but they are in fact government-sponsored. Both are part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). As per the Wikipedia article for NPR:

National Public Radio replaced the National Educational Radio Network on February 26, 1970, following Congressional passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This act was signed into law by 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson, and established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for television in addition to NPR.

Still, in practice, PBS and NPR tend to function as if they were part of civil society, not appearing to have any significant bias in favor of government and business.

Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are certainly well-known international radio media, but they are in fact government-sponsored and funded, operated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency of the U.S. government. As such, they are actually arms of the government rather than being civil society.

As per the Wikipedia article for Voice of America:

Voice of America (VOA) is a U.S. government-funded international news source that serves as the United States federal government’s official institution for non-military, external broadcasting. As the largest U.S. international broadcaster, VOA produces digital, TV, and radio content in more than 40 languages which it distributes to affiliate stations around the globe. Primarily viewed by foreign audiences, VOA programming has an influence on public opinion abroad regarding the United States and its leaders.

VOA is headquartered in Washington, DC and overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent agency of the U.S. government.[5] Funds are appropriated annually by Congress under the budget for embassies and consulates.

As per the Wikipedia article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is a United States government-funded broadcasting organization that spreads news, information, and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, where it claims “the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed”. RFE/RL is a 501(c)(3) corporation that receives U.S. government funding and is supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency overseeing all U.S. federal government international broadcasting services.

As per the Wikipedia article for Broadcasting Board of Governors:

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent agency of the United States government. According to its website, its mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” The BBG supervised Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio y Television Marti, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

All of that said, VOA and RFE/RL tend to support the efforts of civil society in countries outside of the U.S. Some may view their content as propaganda, but in countries suffering from severe democracy deficits, even U.S. government propaganda is a dramatic improvement over what they can access locally, and helps serve to bolster local civil society.

Business as a reason for civil society

Business practices can be just as problematic for civil society as government practices. Maybe business cannot detain, torture, or prosecute individuals, but they can still deny service, overcharge, engage in surveillance, share private information, and be complicit in government activities.

Business as the primary culprit

It is also possible to have a society in which government is nominally an ally with civil society, where business may be the real culprit, acting as if it ran society and running roughshod over feeble government attempts to rein in the excesses of business.

Trade associations

Associations in general will be considered to be part of civil society, unless they are relatively closely associated with business.

Trade associations are examples. They exist solely to serve the interests of businesses who sponsor them.

As a general proposition, associations which are sponsored by one or more businesses are not truly part of civil society.

Business federations and business councils are other examples of associations which are strictly focused on business interests, so they would not normally be considered part of civil society.

Some may prefer to consider any nonprofit organization to be civil society by definition.

Religions and religious service organizations

Religions themselves exist to serve the spiritual interests of their members.

Technically, they would be part of the larger third sector definition of civil society.

But in a narrower sense they would not be deemed as civil society proper.

They may be deemed as civil society actors if they take actions that support civil society efforts.

Religious service organizations, relatively standalone organizations that exist for the purpose of providing services to the community such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, beyond simply to their religious members, are more clearly civil society organizations.

Individuals, families, clubs, sports teams, and activity groups

Although the postmodern notion of civil society nominally refers to all forms of social organization outside of government and business, there are some areas that are generally not included:

  1. Individuals and individual relationships.
  2. Families.
  3. Clubs.
  4. Sports teams.
  5. Activity groups.

Generally, if the group serves only the interests of its members rather than primarily benefitting the community at large, it would not be considered a civil society organization.

Local civic organizations

Civic organizations in communities and neighborhoods, such as various forms of associations, would qualify as civil society organizations provided that their chartered purpose is to serve the community, although we don’t common call them civil society organizations in the U.S.

Crisis in government

There are two crises in government at this time:

  1. Authoritarian regimes resisting full, modern, western-style democracy.
  2. Established democracies experiencing a crisis in confidence.

Crisis in established democracies

Individuals in established democracies have lost full confidence in their democratically elected governments for a variety of reasons:

  • Influence of money and business over average citizens.
  • Culture wars so that government does not have a clear mandate over direction and values.
  • Individuals feel government is out of touch and unresponsive.

Crisis in authoritarian regimes

Authoritarian regimes which have survived the previous waves of democratization are now more experienced and skilled at resisting the efforts of civil society, typically through repression of dissent and rights.

There are twin crises in authoritarian regimes:

  1. The regime is unable to meet the needs of many of its citizens.
  2. Citizens are unable to influence the regime to become more democratic.


Democracy is widely accepted as being the best and preferred form of government for a modern, western-style society. That said, sadly, full-fledged democracy is not universal at this time. Civil society has a role to play in advancing democracy around the world.

There are various roles that civil society can play to advance democracy:

  1. Promoting democracy.
  2. Advocating democracy.
  3. Correcting democracy deficits.
  4. Regime change.

Promoting democracy

The main emphasis on civil society as a foreign policy tool is the promotion of democracy around the world in countries that are either outright dictatorships or repressive regimes, or are nominally democracies, so-called fledgling democracies, but have serious deficits when it comes to modern, western-style democracy.

Promotion of democracy is primarily an externally-directed effort by existing democracies to encourage other countries to migrate from non-democratic forms of government to democracy.

Advocating democracy

While promotion of democracy is an externally-directed effort, from one country to another, advocating democracy is an indigenous effort within a country, by the citizens of that country to influence the governance of their own country.

Authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, and repressive regimes

Civil society is seen as one of the most effective means to correct for democracy deficits in authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, and repressive regimes, where democracy, very weak democratic institutions, or even total lack of democratic institutions.

Civil society efforts are held out as the only real alternative to outright regime change by force.

Regime change

Sadly, democracy deficits cannot always be mitigated in a peaceful manner through the normal electoral process.

Advocacy for democracy or advocating for improvements in governance are one thing, but crossing the line to advocating for regime change is another matter.

Coups, revolutions, foreign intervention or outright invasion simply don’t fit into any reasonable model for civil society.

Regime change can involve various levels of non-peaceful engagement:

  1. Disruption and disorder.
  2. Force.
  3. Violence.
  4. Civil war.
  5. Revolution.

That said, there are differences of opinion on this matter:

  1. Civil society should always be strictly peaceful in nature.
  2. Civil society should do whatever it takes to correct democracy deficits, even if force, violence, and outright revolution (regime change) are required.


Transparency is generally a good thing in most areas of society, but is especially essential for the operation of civil society.

In addition to taking advantage of transparency, civil society is also well-positioned to promote and advocate for additional transparency in the government and business sectors.

Major CSOs

This list excludes nonprofit organizations which are:

  • Philanthropic funds or foundations, many of which fund CSOs which are on the list, but their primary function is directing funding to other organizations which will actually provide a service.
  • Affiliated or associated with businesses, such as trade associations, business federations, and business councils.
  • Standards organizations, which perform primarily a technical function.
  • Bar associations and teachers associations.
  • Labor unions.
  • Lobbying groups, although any organization can lobby Congress on its own behalf.
  • Thinks tanks, whose primary service is disseminating information rather than either providing services, funding CSOs, or advocating for specific government changes within countries with weak civil society.
  • Religions, as distinct from religious service organizations which may be associated with a religion but focused on delivering services to non-members.
  • For-profit media. Nonprofit media may be included as CSOs.
  • Political action committees (PACs), political parties, and political committees.
  • Member service organizations, which provide services primarily to members.

Some of those may indeed be considered CSOs, depending on how narrow or broad a definition of civil society one uses.

Examples of nonprofit organizations that are not considered CSOs here:

  • Ford Foundation
  • Democratic National Committee
  • Republican National Committee
  • Democratic Party
  • Republican Party
  • Citizens United

Granted, philanthropic organizations, think tanks, and labor unions are generally considered as part of civil society in a broader sense, the intention here is to list CSOs in the narrow sense of nonprofit organizations which are focused on performing or advocating services for society in general rather than delivering services to the members of the organization.

Here are some representative larger and more well-known CSOs, listed in the order they were founded:

  • Salvation Army — founded 1865
  • International Committee of the Red Cross — founded 1863
  • Legal Aid Society — founded 1876
  • American Red Cross — founded 1881
  • Rotary Clubs, Rotary International — founded 1905
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — founded 1909
  • Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — founded 1913
  • Planned Parenthood — founded 1916
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — founded 1920
  • League of Women Voters — founded 1920
  • Plan International — founded 1937
  • Oxfam — founded 1942
  • The Nature Conservancy — founded 1951
  • Amnesty International — founded 1961
  • National Organization for Women (NOW) — founded 1966
  • Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) — founded 1969
  • Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — founded 1971
  • Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) — founded 1971
  • Habitat for Humanity — founded 1976
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) — founded 1978
  • Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — founded 1980
  • Committee to Protect Journalists — founded 1981
  • The Carter Center — founded 1982
  • Code Pink: Women for Peace — founded 2002
  • Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) — founded 2006

Some nonprofits that are not considered CSOs in this paper since they provide services to their own members.

  • American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — founded 1963
  • National Rifle Association of America (NRA) — founded 1871
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce — founded 1912
  • YMCA — founded 1844

Local civil society

Most of the examples of civil society given in this paper are large, national, and even international organizations, which is typical, especially in the U.S. or other developed, western-style countries. But there are many local civil society organizations as well.

In fact, very small, local organizations are the norm in developing, transitional, and struggling democracies.

They may be small neighborhood organizations or cooperatives, more organized efforts, or even broad social movements in regions or even an entire country.

Local social movements and grassroots movements

Local civil society is a key part of local social movements, also known as grassroots movements.

Such movements may be focused on social issues, economic issues, and efforts to counter and correct democracy deficits. Even regime change, as seen in the Arab Spring.

Foreign funding of civil society

Civil society in the U.S. and other western-style democracies tends to be wholly funded domestically, but civil society in developing, transitional, and struggling democracies has been heavily funded from foreign sources, such as the U.S. and other western-style democracies, and the European Union as well, with the bulk of that funding from the governments of these western-style countries.

Restrictions on foreign funding of local civil society

After the uprisings in the Arab Spring and Ukraine, and protests in Russia and China, many of the countries whose civil society organizations were significantly foreign funded enacted strict new laws to limit such funding and require registration of any local civil society groups receiving such funding. There was a fear that such foreign funding was an attempt to undermine the regimes of those countries.

The future of such foreign funding of civil society is unclear.

Closing space for civil society

The restrictions mentioned in the preceding section are referred to as the closing space for civil society. This is not an issue for civil society in the U.S. or other western-style democracies, but is a critical issue for developing, transitional, and struggling democracies.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs)

Governments may agree to cooperate through some agreement or treaty and create various intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), but being closely tied to governments, these organizations are not considered civil society or civil society organizations.

Examples include:

  • United Nations
  • WTO
  • IMF and World Bank
  • WHO
  • Organization of American States (OAS)
  • NATO
  • Regional development banks

Whether the European Union (EU) should be considered an intergovernmental organization is unclear, but in many ways it does act as such.

Civil society as partners with intergovernmental organizations

Intergovernmental organizations frequently have a close relationship with civil society as partners when their missions and objectives are closely aligned.

Examples include:

  1. World Bank for development efforts.
  2. World Health Organization (WHO) for health-related efforts.
  3. UN Women to promote gender equality, women’s rights, and empowerment.
  4. UNICEF on child-related issues.

National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is technically a nonprofit organization but was created and is funded by the U.S. government. Being an arm of the government, it is not considered part of civil society or a civil society organization. As per the Wikipedia article for NED:

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a U.S. non-profit soft power organization that was founded in 1983 with the stated goal of promoting democracy abroad.[1] It is funded primarily through an annual allocation from the U.S. Congress in the form of a grant awarded through the United States Information Agency (USIA). It was created by The Democracy Program as a bipartisan, private, non-profit corporation, and in turn acts as a grant-making foundation. In addition to its grants program, NED also supports and houses the Journal of Democracy, the World Movement for Democracy, the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the Reagan–Fascell Fellowship Program, the Network of Democracy Research Institutes, and the Center for International Media Assistance.

That said, a major purpose of NED is to make grants to civil society organizations in other countries, particularly in emerging, transitional, and struggling democracies. As the Wikipedia article says:

NED is structured to act as a grant-making foundation, distributing funds to private non-governmental organizations for the purpose of promoting democracy abroad. The Endowment serves as the umbrella organization in which half of NED’s funding is allocated annually to four main U.S. organizations: the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI), formerly known as the National Republican Institute for International Affairs. The other half of NED’s funding is awarded annually to hundreds of non-governmental organizations based abroad which apply for support.

National Endowment for Democracy funding for civil society

Half of NED’s reason for existence is to directly fund civil society efforts to strengthen democracy in other countries.

Their own description of the NED Grants Program:

Each year the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) makes direct grants to hundreds of nongovernmental organizations worldwide working to advance democratic goals and strengthen democratic institutions.

In 2012, NED funded about 1236 projects in 92 countries around the world. Grant amounts vary depending on the size and scope of the projects, but the average grant lasts 12 months and is around $50,000.

NED funds only nongovernmental organizations, which may include civic organizations, associations, independent media, and other similar organizations.

NED encourages applications from organizations working in diverse environments including newly established democracies, semi-authoritarian countries, highly repressive societies and countries undergoing democratic transitions.

NED does not make grants to individuals, governmental bodies, or state-supported institutions such as public universities.

NED is interested in proposals from local, independent organizations for nonpartisan programs that seek to:

Promote and defend human rights and the rule of law

Support freedom of information and independent media

Strengthen democratic ideas and values

Promote accountability and transparency

Strengthen civil society organizations

Strengthen democratic political processes and institutions

Promote civic education

Support democratic conflict resolution

Promote freedom of association

Strengthen a broad-based market economy

As mentioned previously, many countries with authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, and repressive regimes have been restricting and banning civil society organizations which accept this type of foreign funding.

National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI)

Being created by and funded by the U.S. government, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are not considered civil society organizations, but they do work very closely with civil society in emerging, transitional, and struggling democracies.

As per the Wikipedia article for NDI:

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), or National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that works with partners in developing countries to increase the effectiveness of democratic institutions. NDI’s core program areas include citizen participation, elections, debates, democratic governance, democracy and technology, political inclusion of marginalized groups, and gender, women and democracy. The organization’s stated mission is to “support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.”

As per the Wikipedia article for IRI:

The International Republican Institute (IRI) describes itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide by helping political parties to become more issue-based and responsive, assisting citizens to participate in government planning, and working to increase the role of marginalized groups in the political process — including women and youth.” Its critics say that it has helped to overthrow popularly-elected governments, such as the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, and replaced them with unpopular dictatorships.

Founded in 1983 and initially known as the National Republican Institute for International Affairs, the IRI’s stated mission is to “expand freedom throughout the world”. Its activities include assisting political parties and candidates develop their values and institutional structures, good governance practices, civil society development, civic education, women’s and youth leadership development, electoral reform and election monitoring, and political expression in closed societies. It has been chaired by Arizona Senator John McCain since January 1993.

IRI has dramatically increased its efforts to bring institutional structure to Arab countries whose social and political fabric was frayed by the Arab Spring. IRI controversially was helping organize Haitian workers and farmers in Haiti prior to the 2004 Haitian coup d’état, organized conservative political parties in Poland, and has been involved in organizing women in Egypt during and after the Arab Spring.


A GONGO is a Government-Organized NGO (nongovernmental organization.) That may seem like a contradiction in terms, but the basic idea is that as an NGO a GONGO operates at an arm’s-length from the government, which gives it some flexibility.

There are two distinctly different motives for creating and funding GONGOs:

  1. To publicly pursue policies of the government with greater flexibility but with no intention to hide or shield them from public view or accountability.
  2. To secretly create, sponsor, fund, and control NGOs with the full intention of having them appear as if they were true, grassroots civil society organizations, typically to attempt to counter and undermine the impacts of true local civil society organizations.

Some would insist that the term GONGO should be reserved for the latter — groups whose connection to the sponsoring government is kept strictly secret, but there is no general restriction to that meaning.

In any case, GONGOs should not be considered part of civil society since they are an arm of the government.


GONGOs are not typically considered civil society per se due to their close association with the government.

But GONGOs such as NED, NDI, and IRI either fund NGOs or partner with them.

The NGOs that GONGOs fund are still considered part of civil society, but the GONGOs themselves are not considered part of civil society.

Sons of Liberty

An early example of civil society in America were the Sons of Liberty, essentially a protest group, formed in the run-up to the American Revolution.

As per the Wikipedia article for Sons of Liberty:

The Sons of Liberty was an organization that was created in the Thirteen American Colonies. The secret society was formed to protect the rights of the colonists and to fight taxation by the British government. They played a major role in most colonies in battling the Stamp Act in 1765. The group officially disbanded after the Stamp Act was repealed. However, the name was applied to other local separatist groups during the years preceding the American Revolution.

Criminal organizations

Organized crime would certainly not be considered part of civil society. The motive in such illegal organizations is economic gain, so if anything they should be considered illegal businesses, and the business sector is specifically excluded from civil society. And they are certainly not focused the betterment of society in general

Civil society organizations may occasionally run afoul of the law, but their motives are still the betterment of society rather than economic profit of the participants.

Terrorist organizations

Terrorists would certainly not be considered part of civil society. To the extent to which their primary motive is to disrupt and destroy the society and government in which they operate, they certainly are not working towards the betterment of that society — as viewed by the vast majority of the citizens of that society.

Freedom fighters and revolutionaries

Freedom fighters and revolutionaries may be labeled by the authorities as terrorists, as American revolutionists were by the British government.

To the extent that they are taking on the role of a new government, freedom fighters and revolutionaries would no longer constitute civil society per se since they are no longer an effort outside of government.

Although, today’s freedom fighters and revolutionaries may have been yesterday’s civil society, lobbying and working for change before crossing the rubicon to forcefully place themselves in control of a new government.


Lobbyists may or may not be part of civil society.

To the extent they are lobbying on behalf of businesses or business interests (e.g., trade associations), or other governments, such lobbyists are not part of civil society.

But to the extent they are lobbying on behalf of non-business, non-government interests, such lobbyists are part of civil society. Such as lobbying for civil society organizations and other civil society actors. For example for an environmental or social justice organization.

What’s next?

My next step in my larger civil society project may simply be to organize and post my raw notes on civil society. I had about 95 pages in Google Docs. It may be another year before I am really ready to publish Elements of Civil Society, but organizing and posting the notes may help to accelerate the process.

Summary and conclusion

Civil society fulfills a very valuable role in modern society, helping to fill gaps in services provided by government and the commercial sector, as well as advocating for change.

The role of civil society is evolving rapidly. Sometimes, government and business are taking on roles traditionally carried by civil society, and sometimes civil society is taking on outsize roles as government and business shed roles or fail to deliver on past promises.

Civil society can play a role in correcting deficiencies in government and business, even to the point of participating in outright regime change.

There is no clear, absolute, ideal specific role for civil society. Its key characteristic is that it adapts to fit the totality of social needs as they exist in the here in now, especially to the degree that government and business are slower to adapt to a changing world.

The ultimate objective of civil society is always the same, the betterment of society, well beyond the narrow personal interests of the individuals involved in any particular civil society effort.

Civil society will continue to play a role in advancing democracy in countries that do not have strong democratic institutions, but its role is in a state of flux and uncertain as a result of recent government crackdowns and the closing space for civil society.

The future of western-funded civil society democratization efforts as a U.S. and European foreign policy tool is unclear.

Even so, the future of civil society in general and its key role in the betterment of society remains quite bright.