Civil society infuses prevailing wisdom into the communityCivil society is the ecosystem that influences social change outside of the family, market or government. Often referred to as the space where we act for the common good, civil society aims to connect poor or marginalized people with groups that can mobilize support to help.
Examples of civil society organizations include:
- Churches and other faith-based organizations
- Online groups and social media communities
- Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other nonprofits
- Unions and other collective-bargaining groups
- Innovators, entrepreneurs and activists
- Cooperatives and collectives
- Grassroots organizations
At various points throughout history, civil society has taken on the role of leading great movements of change, including civil rights, gender equality and other parity movements. Civil society is at its best when people at all levels of society adopt an idea. Over time, this fosters changes in power structures and infuses the new prevailing wisdom into family, society, courts and businesses.
The role of civil society
Societies are always changing. They're shaped by world events, struggles, and creative, technological and economic advances. Civil society provides a way to engage productively in this process — to keep tabs on new developments and partner with other organizations working for the common good.
Some of the most critical jobs involve:
- Social accountability. Hold corporations, faith-based and other organizations accountable for their actions (or inactions). Social accountability prizes transparency and honesty and makes sure everyone — from government officials to local school children — follows the same rules.
- Empowering communities. Civil society organizations give voice to the disorganized, voiceless segments of society. They raise awareness of social issues and advocate for change, empowering local communities to develop new programs to meet their own needs.
- Ensuring good governance. Civil society works hand-in-hand with the government, striving to develop policy and implement new strategies. Beyond that, civil society builds so-called social capital by providing a way for participants to build relationships and make connections based on their values, behaviors and beliefs.
Getting involved in civil society
Civil society organizations have a long history of advocating for social change. There are many ways to get involved in social change efforts. Think about ways that you or your organization may become an:
- Expert. Study, research and develop deep knowledge in a field you care about. Experts can be either single people, groups or entire organizations, and in those capacities they straddle work across fields — serving as research councils, consultants and members of think tanks. In addition to providing knowledge, they may train, advocate for education, teach or build new communication networks in their areas of expertise.
- Ambassador. An ambassador is a liaison to the people, functioning as a voice for under-represented communities. Like experts, ambassadors can be either single people or large groups connected by a shared purpose. They often take on the role of delivering services and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty working on huge social issues such as disaster management, security or hunger.
- Innovator. Innovators trust their instincts. They're energized by the idea of developing new solutions to intractable social issues. Part of their role is to serve as society's idea incubator, keeping faith for causes that may take a long time to resolve. Innovators may work on practical solutions (such as a new way of working) or they may devote their creative energy to technology (such as creating a new social media platform).
Animating Democracy: What is social change?
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development: Civil society, NGDOs and social development: Changing the rules of the game by Alan Fowler
GSDRC: Applied Knowledge Services: The role of civil society and social movements