Jason Franklin, Ph.D.

by Jason Franklin, Ph.D.

Last month I joined over 400 leaders from 60 countries at the first Global Community Philanthropy Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a powerful gathering where we explored the future of collective giving as an approach to build local capacity and assets, strengthen social trust, and democratize control of philanthropy and development aid. But running through our conversations was an undercurrent of unease, as leader after leader talked about the implications of closing space for civil society in many parts of the world.

Policies and regulations are changing in country after country, establishing increasingly onerous requirements upon philanthropy and civil society groups operating within them. Beyond the stress of these in-country regulations, in just the past three years countries large and small — from China, India, and Russia to Cambodia, Hungary, and Uganda (spanning ideological, political, economic, and cultural bounds) — have also been stepping up efforts to block funding from outside (largely North American and Western European) sources supporting domestic civil society organizations. This push towards more “closed societies” is not just the byproduct of an authoritarian surge but also the result of a strengthening critique of Western power, resurgent nationalism, heightened counterterrorism efforts, and increasingly intense clashes around economic inequality the world over.

“Closing space for civil society should concern all of us, whether we work locally or internationally.”

Closing space for civil society should concern all of us, even if we don’t work outside American borders. Polls from the U.S. presidential election showed a significant number of voters expressing nationalistic, populist, and authoritarian views as reasons they voted for President Trump. This potential drive toward isolationism that could constrain civil society and questions about how these views will get translated into policy should be on all of our minds. Is American civil society closing? How will talks of tax reform, increased IRS oversight, heightened scrutiny of nonprofits, and possible new regulations on giving and policy engagement affect our sector?

For those of us who do work internationally, the call for leadership is even clearer. Just as we must work to sustain a vibrant civil society in the U.S., we must also step up as allies to civil society leaders globally. As we explore possible actions we can take, at home or abroad, it’s important to remember that we can learn from diverse experiences in other parts of the world. Recent publications from the European Foundation Center, Ariadne, Alliance Magazine, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are among the best current resources that can help us prepare and respond to threats to civil society wherever they emerge.

As philanthropic and nonprofit leaders reflecting on the actions that threaten civil society, we must ask ourselves what type of global civil society will foster a just, fair, and democratic world … and take action to build that.

Jason Franklin, Ph.D. is the W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. As the holder of the nation’s first endowed chair focused on community philanthropy, he develops programs of research, teaching, service, and thought leadership to explore and advance the field of community philanthropy, nationally and internationally.


  1. Reply
    Marilyn Zack says

    Great article Jason!

  2. Reply
    Donna schaper says

    Jason we must talk about all the open space churches that are closing. Great article

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