A Risk Sciences International glossary definition (Last modifed: December 15, 2023)

civil society

« Back to Glossary Index

Civil society refers to the aggregate of non-governmental organizations, community groups, associations, and networks that operate outside of governmental and commercial institutions. These entities are generally driven by shared interests, collective goals, or common values, and they serve a variety of functions within a society. They often provide social services, advocate for specific issues, and act as a channel for citizen participation in public affairs.


Civil society is composed of a diverse range of organizations and groups, which can include non-profits, charitable organizations, advocacy groups, religious institutions, community clubs, labor unions, and even informal community associations. The nature of these entities can vary significantly, from small grassroots organizations to large, well-funded NGOs.

Role in governance

One of the key roles of civil society is to act as a counterbalance to governmental power and to advocate for transparency, accountability, and democratic governance. Through activities such as advocacy, public awareness campaigns, and community organizing, civil society organizations often strive to influence public policy and social change.

Social functions

Apart from their political role, civil society organizations often fill gaps in social services that may not be sufficiently addressed by the government. They can provide healthcare, education, and welfare services, among other things, particularly to marginalized or underserved communities.

Global perspective

In a global context, civil society often serves as a crucial interface between local issues and international agendas. Many global civil society networks exist to address issues that transcend national boundaries, such as climate change, human rights, and social justice.

In summary, civil society is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a wide range of organizations and groups operating outside of governmental and commercial spheres. It serves as both a counterbalance to state power and a mechanism for social service provision, playing a vital role in democratic governance and community well-being.

Civil society and risk

The concept of risk has multidimensional implications for civil society, affecting its functioning, objectives, and interactions with other societal actors. Below, I categorize these risks into three broad types: internal risks, external risks, and operational risks.

Internal Risks

Internal risks pertain to challenges that originate within the organizational and functional frameworks of civil society entities. Governance issues such as poor accountability, lack of transparency, and internal corruption can pose significant risks to the integrity and effectiveness of civil society organizations (CSOs). Furthermore, ideological divides and mission drift can dilute the focus of a CSO, reducing its efficacy and compromising its goals.

External Risks

External risks are those that arise from the external environment in which civil society operates. One of the most pronounced risks is the shrinking of civic space, often due to authoritarian tendencies in governance. Laws that restrict freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, or the right to advocate can severely impede the ability of civil society to function effectively. Additionally, public sentiment and attitudes towards civil society can also be considered an external risk, as negative perceptions can lead to reduced support and legitimacy.

Moreover, geopolitical events such as armed conflict, economic instability, and natural disasters pose a different set of risks. These can compromise the safety of CSO members, disrupt operations, and necessitate a shift in focus to more immediate concerns, such as humanitarian relief.

Operational Risks

Operational risks are the functional hazards that civil society organizations face in their day-to-day activities. Funding volatility is a primary operational risk, as many CSOs rely on donor funding, which can be subject to economic fluctuations or shifting donor priorities. Other operational challenges include logistical issues, data management, and ensuring the welfare and security of staff and volunteers, especially when operating in unstable or hazardous conditions.

Impact on Civil Society

The presence of these risks necessitates robust risk management strategies. Inadequately managed risks can compromise the effectiveness of CSOs, reducing their ability to achieve their objectives, whether those are policy change, social justice, or the provision of services. Risks can also have a cascading effect, where a failure in one area, such as governance, can lead to risks in other areas, like operational effectiveness or external relations.

In summary, risk in civil society is an omnipresent and multifaceted challenge that can emanate from internal governance, external political and social conditions, or daily operational activities. The ability of civil society to mitigate these risks through effective management and adaptive strategies is crucial for its sustainable and impactful functioning.

non-governmental organization
« Back to Glossary Index