CAF: National policy responses for philanthropy and civil society across Europe in the context of COVID-19

Paper published in May 2020 – accessible here (PDF)


This paper consolidates the major elements of a discussion on European governments’ policy responses to supporting civil society and facilitating philanthropy and individual giving in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is vital that governments recognise the crucial role of civil society and philanthropy in the immediate response to the crisis and the part they play in continuing to build the resilience of our communities. Governments must now fully consider how the sector can be harnessed to support and complement their own rebuilding efforts.

At the same time, the pandemic has put civil society under immense pressure and many organisations are in a position of needing help just to survive. Policymakers must step in to support civil society organisations (CSOs) and the wider social economy so that they can continue to serve the needs of those communities affected by COVID-19 today, but also ensure their longer-term resilience in the years to come. That said, measures to tackle the crisis cannot, in turn, result in constraints on civic space, rights and freedoms, and the wider operating environment for civil society.

This paper looks at European and national policy responses to COVID-19 which target or impact on philanthropy and civil society. We highlight examples of good and bad practice in an attempt to distil lessons regarding the use of giving for crisis response and sector resilience. We take a broad view: while national situations may vary, these observations will help us explore what the changing environment may mean for policymakers in rebuilding civil society, and the role giving and philanthropy can play therein.

We note that previously there does not appear to have been a concerted effort to learn the potential cross-border lessons of past crises. We are now presented with the opportunity to think in a considered way about what we need the response to look like next time we face a crisis. It is also a chance to review our understanding of the role and value of philanthropy, giving and civil society to the communities they represent and serve, and the state’s relationship to the sector.

While philanthropic organisations and foundations are part of wider civil society, they can also sit in a slightly separate space: policymakers’ interest in philanthropy as a source of additional funding, in particular on the EU level, can be inferred from references to it in bailout packages, support for public-private partnerships and match-funding, and some movement around tax incentives. However, we believe that it is important to resist the narrative that philanthropy can be an alternative to adequate public funding and be asked to ‘fill the gaps’. The scale of philanthropy, the distribution of resources and the methods for holding it accountable all make it unsuited to this task. Hence it is important that those seeking to promote a positive narrative about government support for philanthropy are clear about its role. As a result, our primary interest is in looking at policy responses designed to incentivise philanthropy and giving as a means of financing civil society.

Prior context is significant: while the relationship is by no means homogenous across different countries, often the balance between the role of state and philanthropy has long been unclear – and remains so. Philanthropy can never be a panacea, but there are more effective ways for the state to leverage it as a part of the response. Wider systemic issues mean that if states are not set up well to respond to crisis events, the shift into ‘crisis mode’ can deprioritise civil society – which has in some states lived through a continued period of austerity and has been pushed down on the agenda of decision-makers. While collective voice for civil society exists in certain forms – with infrastructure playing a crucial role in expressing it – this needs to be stronger in order to effectively set out demands for support and ensure civil society and philanthropy are proactively included in crisis management and response planning.