Civil Society

10 trends shaping the future of civil society

Silvia Magnoni
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Civil Society Organisations are undergoing major changes and interviewees for the World Economic Forum’s report on the future role of civil society identified a number of trends shaping civil society roles and relationships with other stakeholders. Some of these factors are working in favour of an enhanced role for civil society; others challenge this community to define more sharply its responsibilities and contributions. A subset of the trends identified in interviews, workshops and desk research are worth highlighting, as they were prioritized by interviewees.

1. Global institutions are no longer fit for purpose

Members of civil society and business have noted the decline of traditional institutions that have been in place since the end of World War II, and their guiding rules of engagement. Business, government and civil society leaders now want more socially inclusive models of governance and economic policy.

2. The world is becoming hyperconnected

Through increasing access to the internet, social media and mobile phone technology, the power of the individual as a virtual citizen is on the rise. The scale of social networks has shifted the paradigm of citizen expression. Non-hierarchical communication structures are one result. Civil society, along with business, government and international organizations, are challenged to respond to, represent, and engage this proliferation of voices online in a way that leverages the power of connectivity. Governments are using such connectivity to experiment with different forms of public engagement and consultation: for example, both Egypt and Iceland have employed online technologies to “crowd-source” input into their new constitutions.

According to Charles Leadbeater in his paper, The Civic Long Tail, “decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the web is creating a parallel but arguably more effective universal set of expectations among citizens.” He continues, “even if social media does not become a platform for overtly political activity, it is already changing how citizens expect to be treated and so what they expect of government.”

3. Interest is growing in the role of faith and religious culture in society

Individuals within government, business and civil society are exploring new ways to leverage the strengths of on-the-ground faith-based actors within the context of local community development, as well as in overseas aid and economic development. Faith is also seen as a source of ethical principles and values within business models. Appropriate mechanisms need to be defined for engagement with leaders of religious institutions and faith-based organizations.

4. There is profound public pressure – and increasingly an economic argument – for responding to pressing challenges of inequality

The extremes of wealth and the depths of poverty that have arisen globally in recent decades provide a stark reality for leaders of government, business and civil society. The power of the internet to vividly project this phenomenon puts each sector under the spotlight to respond swiftly and convincingly.

5. Significant demographic shifts are under way which have yet to be factored into our economic, political or social systems

The demographic distribution of young vs. older national populations is having and will continue to have a profound effect on how civil society, business and government position their strategic approaches to deliver job opportunities, health care and mechanisms for responding to citizen needs. The generation of youth that is presently emerging only knows a world that is wired and, significantly, is using social media to address its concerns, exert rights and create positive societal change. Planning for the development of mechanisms to “deliver” in a world forecast to have a population of 9 billion people by 2050 – many of whom will live within emerging economies and in cities – represents a significant challenge.

6. There is reduced certainty of funding size, sources and modes from traditional donors and a rise of new socially driven financial actors

Civil Society Organisations have witnessed traditional funding streams shrink. Modifications have been made to donor criteria, including diversification of funding sources, requirements for private sector partners, and more stringent requirements to demonstrate impact. Simultaneously, new sources of finance are emerging, such as the rise of emerging market philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and social investment products. New mechanisms to access finance are also emerging, such as crowd-sourced funding and models like KIVA, an online lending platform connecting lenders and entrepreneurs.

Member organizations of Interaction, an alliance of US-based NGOs, report that whereas they relied on official aid for 70% of their operations 20 years ago, today they raise 70% of their budgets from private sources.

7. There is a widening trust deficit towards institutions and between sectors

The rise of citizen protest and the confirming evidence by research firm Edelman and others, reveal a reduction in level of trust by the general public in institutions around the world such as business and government.

Trust in governments and the financial sector has particularly been affected. Interviewees also pointed to the ongoing challenge of low levels of trust between certain elements of civil society and the business and government sectors in specific regional and national contexts.

8. Governments facing fiscal pressures are scaling back social service provision

Recent concerns over government debt and attempts to restore competitiveness after the global financial crisis of 2008 have resulted in austerity measures that cut public spending on social services.

9. Private sector players are increasingly developing strategies to address social and environmental challenges

A number of leading businesses are today reorienting their activities with the objective of bringing positive impact to complex societal challenges as a core part of their business and organizational strategies.

Alongside major multinationals, this shift is taking place in emerging markets, through the leadership of “Sustainability Champions” such as Florida Ice and Farm Company S.A., based in Costa Rica, which employs strategies for “triple-bottom line performance” (economic, ecological and societal impact) and aims to increase access to their products for poor rural communities and thereby address malnutrition.

Such strategies have come to be known as pursuit of “shared value” – which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. As a result, businesses employing these strategies do not see themselves standing outside civil society but rather as part of an emerging group of leaders acting in the common interest.

Civil society is consistently trusted far more than government, business and the media at a time when trust is by far the most valuable currency. Ingrid Srinath, Former Secretary General of CIVICUS In 2011, the Global Impact Investing Network and JPMorgan predicted nearly $4bn of impact investments in 2012, and as much as $1trillion in the coming decade.

10. New patterns of economic and political power are creating a shift in the axis of development

The traditional North-South development dynamic is being challenged by geopolitical and economic shifts, including foreign direct investment of emerging economies such as China’s outward investment in Africa; changing focus of donor countries from aid to trade with key emerging market economies; and the new map of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In response, many international civil society organizations are looking to “internationalize” their funding and management structures.

This post originally appeared in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 report The Future Role of Civil Society

Author: Silvia Magnoni is Head of Civil Society Communities at the World Economic Forum

Image: South Sudanese children living in the North gather to play soccer in an IDP camp at Soba Aradi in Khartoum March 12, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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