Informality has become a notable feature of European civil society activism: forms of civic participation and organization are now more fluid and less hierarchical. But what exactly constitutes “informality” in democratic action? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of these new forms of participation? To address these questions, Carnegie Europe, European Alternatives, and the European University Institute mapped and assessed the rise of informal civil society across Europe and its implications for democratic activism and participation. The project included case studies of Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Romania, and Spain. Although the studies were limited to Europe, much of what was assessed is mirrored in practices around the world.
This article outlines the identified different components of informality in civil society, evaluates some of the informal civil society initiatives that have expanded in recent years and what they have achieved, and suggests how their creative potential for democracy might be further magnified. The article also reflects on what these new forms of participation might mean for the more formal civil society sector and for the EU’s long-standing dialogues with civil society.
The Rise of Informal Civil Society
The case studies show examples of the striking rise in informal civil society from diverse corners of Europe. For example, in Germany, self-defined informal movements to protect refugee rights include Seebrücke and Europe Must Act. On environmental issues, significant examples include the unregistered Fridays for Future and undefined groups that take direct action, such as setting up blockades to protect Hambach Forest. In Ireland, after the financial crisis started in 2008, informal groups spread, mobilizing against charges for water and protesting housing evictions at the local level. The trend toward more informal action then deepened as the climate movement in particular shifted away from formal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) toward local action groups on issues like anti-fracking. In Poland, a growing the number of informal groups emerged in the spheres of women’s rights and climate action, especially through the National Women Strike movement and the Youth Climate Strike.
Informal online activism has helped push transgender issues up the political agenda in Spain and has mobilized a wider community of citizens on this issue—with individual YouTubers gaining more traction and support than formal NGO campaigns. Also in Spain, a loose network of organizations, called Defender a quien Defiende, has formed to monitor and fight back against police repression and government attacks on civic groups. Italian informal groups have been at the forefront of informal tactics online, in relation to migration and climate policy and less liberally to COVID-19 health passes. Also in Italy, the informal group Mediterranea is helping asylum seekers and migrants directly. It operates in a mode of collective volunteerism and claims to be exercising “civil obedience” while making sure that the state respects current laws. In order to evade government restrictions against NGOs working to save migrants’ lives, the group began explicitly defining itself as a nongovernmental “action” (as opposed to an “organization”) to which different individuals and organizations can contribute. Mediterranea owns a ship to rescue migrants in danger and has constituted an associazione di promozione sociale, showing how formal and informal modes of organization can be combined.
Bulgaria still has a relatively low level of civic activism, although informal initiatives are beginning to gain more traction than formal NGO campaigns—particularly on issues related to corruption, local environments, gender violence, refugee care, and COVID-19. Activist leaders have also tried to ensure that short-term and temporary initiatives keep citizens engaged for longer than they have in the past. In Romania, new informal civic initiatives related to COVID-19 have been especially evident and are part of the recent wider momentum in democratic activism. Private sector support for social entrepreneurship has also expanded in Romania, fostering crowd-sourced civic initiatives without formalized structures. In Hungary, informal activism focused on defending press and academic freedoms has been growing, although grassroots organization has yet to gain long-term traction or have a strong political impact.
These country examples show that informal groups are increasingly engaging European citizens who do not necessarily define themselves as activists. The groups are finding new ways to mobilize citizens to contribute to certain forms of collective civic initiatives. At the same time, informal movements are growing due to a rise in the involvement of former NGO professionals who now see these movements as more legitimate. The emerging informality is also often different from social movements: the latter pride themselves on being looser and more flexible than formal NGOs but still mobilize strongly engaged activists in fairly concerted ways.
The case studies indicate that the rise of informal civil society across Europe is a multifaceted phenomenon, comprising several distinct civic trends. And while it is difficult to pinpoint any single demarcation line between formal and informal civil society, it is possible to identify degrees and types of informality in different parts of Europe and different sectors of civil society.
One overarching trend is that an increasing number of civil society groups around Europe are choosing not to register formally with government authorities. In some cases, this is because their governments have enacted draconian new laws that employ onerous restrictions in return for granting the groups formal status. Governments often find it easier to influence the activities of formally registered organizations. However, it is important to clarify that informality is not synonymous with unregistered civil society groups. There are many organizations with relatively formal institutional structures that choose not to register. Conversely, there are informally run groups that do register without this choice negating all aspects of their informality.
Beyond this trend in legal status, the case studies point to three main features of informal civic activism emerging in Europe today.
Some of the most prominent forms of European civic activism are becoming increasingly diffuse. The organizational structures and membership of informal civil society groups frequently shift; and the groups tend to link up networks focused on different issues, reject standard forms of leadership, and use the language of nonhierarchical participation and “horizontality.” Rather than seeing civil society as rooted in large, formal memberships, they embrace differing internal views and question formal institutional structures.1 While some of the media tropes about new forms of activism being leaderless are exaggerated, informal civic groups have found ways to avoid rigid managerial structures, promote decentralized initiatives that engage individuals and local groups, and give voice to larger numbers of activists.
Informal activism often centers on individual personal experience—such as that of a migrant, a transgender person, or someone whose home was repossessed—while framing such voices as “one among many.” By contrast, more formal civil society structures tend to empower specific individuals with the authority of representing the organization. Today, European activists increasingly talk about non-movements to refer to forms and degrees of informal initiatives that are even more diffuse and flexible than social movements.
Civil society activities are becoming more ad hoc and self-organized rather than following agendas set by professional staff of civil society organizations (CSOs). Informal groups seek to harness a more flexible but engaged form of citizenship—one that mobilizes a larger number of citizens on a more sporadic basis and in support of select issues. This approach results in a rhythm of activism that is very different from regular, traditional NGO or political party work.2 Some academics describe informality as a move away from structured CSO campaigns guided by their membership toward informal “activist citizenship” or “citizenism.”3 Relatedly, while formal CSOs tend to deploy fairly constant and regular political engagement efforts, informal civil society groups find it easier to “be water” and switch on and off in fluid ways. These characteristics of informal activism make it more appealing to younger and female participants than other hierarchical forms that may demand more continuous activism.
To the extent that informal groups engage in the kind of activities typical of formal civil society, such as letter writing and joint petitions directed at politicians or institutions, they often do so with a different purpose. Rather than being the principal form of lobbying, these actions are conceived as the initial first steps of building a campaign; they are done to gather e-mail addresses and social media contacts that can then be used for additional mobilization efforts. Because it is increasingly important to make social connections online, gathering communication data to build a constituency has become a precondition for activism. And tis new form of assembly has implications for the kinds and structures of activism that then follow.
Today, much informal activism is concerned with expanding or defending public goods such as clean water, adequate shelter, and high-quality health services, as well as with protecting the right to migrate and to safeguard the environment and the rule of law—all ingredients of a livable future. This activism embodies “publicness” in that it (1) relates to public goods that should be consumed without zero-sum rivalry and exclusion and which have traditionally been provided by the state or regulated corporations but may be increasingly wanting and (2) aims to serve the public.
While this activism may involve protests targeting governments or corporations, in many instances, it instead takes a do-it-yourself approach by directly providing, for example, public goods such as health services, rescue relief, or community gardens. When publicness combines with fluidity, for instance, this may mean that skills acquired in the private sector are being used for public benefit. The growth in informal activism characterized by publicness can be partly understood as a countermovement to years of austerity politics in Europe.4 Conversely, some of the illiberal tendencies in informal activism can be understood as calls for the maintenance of exclusions and restrictions related to public goods.
Informal civil society group structures are increasingly functioning as community or “walk-in” hubs for citizens with a range of local concerns. Environmental activism, in particular, is increasingly rooted in informal community initiatives that operate alongside large international NGO campaigns. A notable part of the trend includes informal clusters of people working on technological solutions to local community problems or organizing legal advice to protect community rights from restrictive government actions.5 The notion of very small clusters offering “citizen aid” has gained currency.6 The community focus is not the only one present in informal activism, but it is certainly a prominent one. Local-level activism across Europe is increasingly about building networks of practical engagement.
Informal activism has taken shape and gained in prominence largely due to the wide range of problems facing formal CSOs in recent years. Illiberal European governments have found it relatively easy to target and isolate formal organizations. This has been the case in Central and Eastern Europe in part because many CSOs and their funders became associated with unpopular economic liberalization measures that accompanied democratic transitions. In other countries, such as Ireland, some CSOs receiving government grants seemed to have been co-opted by the political establishment, and informal groups developed as alternatives to articulate social and political malaise.
There is often a sense that large, internationally supported NGOs have lost support from local citizens in many countries, and informal groups often develop in ways that are more in tune with local grievances. The professional staff of CSOs can easily lose touch with local communities. In recent years, the agendas of large, capital-based NGOs have not always reflected the local population’s main concerns. Formal NGOs plan long advocacy campaigns but do not seem well attuned to the kind of sudden and creative activism that has become more necessary and potent. As the pace of revolts and online activism has become quicker, some well-established NGOs have started to look heavy-footed and antiquated in their tactics.
Many reformers and citizens see informal activism as a potential antidote to these shortcomings. And this informality is bringing clear advantages and dynamism to democratic participation across Europe. Informality has helped to circumvent the wave of restrictions and modes of control that European governments have imposed on formal CSOs during the last decade—a trend also found in many other parts of the world. In numerous contexts, informal civic groups are demonstrating their ability to organize more quickly and cheaply, rooting themselves more strongly in communities and among ordinary people.
Informal activism tends to be oriented toward direct action and civil disobedience, while formal CSOs are sometimes overly reticent about supporting any actions that may bring the organization as a whole into disrepute (with notable exceptions such as Greenpeace, for example). But these informal actions are not always spontaneous. In fact, informal groups often place a high priority on the long-term education of participants about an issue and establish working groups for this purpose.
Maximizing the Democratic Advantage
While the trend toward informal activism in Europe brings many advantages, it needs deepening and solidifying if it is to have a major impact. The challenge is to consolidate the incipient advantages that informal civil society brings to European democracy while also addressing the disadvantages. Some of the features that allow informal civil society to be flexible and quick can also work against it. For example, informal groups often lack the structures and clear aims needed to engage constructively with authorities and negotiate tangible policy gains.
Informal groups have sometimes descended into directionless chaos and squabbling due to a lack of clear leadership. In the absence of agreed, formal procedures, dominant individuals can assume an outsized influence without proper accountability and scrutiny. The irony is that in trying to avoid hierarchical leadership patterns, some informal groups have become even more subject to personalized dynamics than formal CSOs. Although informal groups can draw from a wide diversity of members around an issue, this can create conflicts and disagreements that then bubble up and undermine mobilization efforts. Informal groups find it very hard to make strategic coalitions with other organizations given the difficulty of making collective decisions.
The groups’ lack of formal status can weaken legal protection for their participants. The case studies show that in at least some countries, informal activists feel they need greater legal protection and insurance for volunteers. While in Germany it is easy for an association to have limited liability, in other countries such as Italy, legal liability remains with the president of an association unless the association has significant resources. Some changes have begun to address these concerns: for example, many German regions now provide public insurance for volunteers, even if they are not part of a formally registered organization. Beyond these kinds of legal concerns, the most obvious challenge for informal groups is attracting funds.
After taking stock of the positive and negative features of informality, perhaps the most crucial question is whether formal and informal activism can be combined while still maintaining the integrity and comparative advantages of each form. It is clear from the empirical case studies that informal civil society is not entirely distinguishable from but rather overlaps with formal civil society. One study describes informality as a kind of “halo” surrounding formal civil society—comprising a set of practices and dispositions that are not destined to replace formalized structures but rather to extend their reach or contest them at the edges. This means that many drawbacks of informality can be addressed without moving toward formalization. And, in turn, formal civil society can adopt many practices of informality, including more participative decisionmaking, more transparency about funding, and less centralization (of course, such moves will require civil society leaders at the top of institutional hierarchies to give up some authority).
Formal and informal civic activism are unlikely to stand as mutually exclusive alternatives. The pertinent policy debates will be about how elements of informality can be injected into formal CSOs and how a degree of necessary formality can be added to informal activism. Even if some mutual learning and connection is taking place between the formal and informal parts of civil society, much more needs to be done.
Formal CSOs can do more to support informal groups in functional areas such as fundraising, resource management, and data management. For instance, developing incubators and hubs for informal civil society groups could be useful to help promote organizational development, links and coalitions between groups, and collaboration with formal civil society. Several for-profit corporations have established and funded such hubs (for example, in Bucharest, Romania). Particularly in countries with low trust in government, private enterprises and corporations have become major sponsors of informal civil society by promoting volunteering and using business skills such as project management and tech skills for public benefit. However, many more similar efforts are needed.
In turn, informal civic society can do more to act as a bridge between volunteerism and political participation. Specifically, informal groups could explore modified, looser forms of membership. A “membership-lite” scheme could create a more balanced mix of participants (for example, between so-called social media followers and full members). With only very loosely engaged supporters or followers, informal groups cannot count on a reliable core of participants; meanwhile, traditional NGOs are too rigid to entice those engaged in sporadic activism.
Informal groups do not necessarily have to register as NGOs but could instead seek some kind of associational link to more established CSOs. Conversely, formal CSOs could introduce membership-lite schemes to help them develop the flexibility of informal groups. They could also import the more flexible decisionmaking processes typical of informal groups. The annual general assembly model of CSOs is somewhat outdated. CSOs should meet multiple times over the year to discuss strategic direction with members, supporters, and communities affected by the issue being discussed. New participatory and deliberative methodologies can be used, and such dialogue should take place both online and offline.
EU institutions, member state governments, and foundations that support civil society also have an important role to play. They need to take these kinds of issues on board and strive to grasp the full potential of informal civic activism. Governments could loosen the requirements for registration, as these currently dissuade many informal groups. Fridays for Future in Germany, for example, refuses to become a legal structure primarily because of the requirement of electing a president, treasurer, and secretary. More flexible legal statuses could allow leaderships to rotate more often and avoid the concentration of power in a small number of individuals.
Likewise, European institutions could allow civil society to choose their own interlocutors within its institutions and could make dialogue and consultation processes as open as possible (not limited only to formally established networks in Brussels). They should prioritize regular meetings between EU officials and civil society representatives on the ground rather than formal meetings in Brussels: the EU’s delegations should become knowledge centers covering civil society trends in their respective countries. The EU could provide a new statute for CSOs that promotes best practices in community engagement, transparency, and cross-border participation.
All these institutions could set aside a share of their civil society funding for informal activism and do much more to help emergent groups create a bridge that enables long-term political influence. Importantly, while upgrading governmental dialogue with civil society means going beyond talking exclusively with formalized organizations, the EU should not focus too much on dialogue with individual citizens through, for example, polling, focus groups, or citizen panels. Informal civil society activity has a distinct kind of fluid social participation—located between individual action and formalized membership—and thus merits and demands its own funds, decentralized channels, and forms of dialogue.
The rising informality of democratic activism reflects a growing concern with correcting the shortcomings of formal civil society. In an age of disaffection with public affairs, particularly among the young generation, informality is reshaping European civil society and bringing about new and welcome forms of political engagement. But the three crucial features of informal activism highlighted in this article—horizontality, fluidity, and publicness—are themselves in a state of flux and ongoing reinvention. One question is whether community-based mutualism can be combined with strongly political expressions of informal activism.7 Another is whether the COVID-19 pandemic’s catalytic effect on informal activism might eventually offset its negative impacts on civil society.8
In the end, however, even if civil society is becoming more self-aware, both formal and informal civil society groups need to reflect more on the nature of power in the twenty-first century and what strategies they can use to influence it and hold it to account. There is a danger that informal modes of activism will burn out. While simply formalizing informality is not the answer, improvements in informal activism are required. Informal initiatives may be creative and fleet of foot, but they are not nearly strong enough to prevent or reverse illiberal, undemocratic political developments in their countries. They have commonly lacked the political heft to get their demands through the political system or to link their specific local problems to wider institutional pathologies. The case studies highlight how powerful the trend toward informal democratic activism has become across Europe, while also pointing to the kinds of issues that will need to be tackled if this activism is to provide a truly effective booster shot to European democracy.
The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their valuable research on the case studies: Josep Folch (Spain), Leszek Jazdzewski (Poland), Dylan Marshall (Ireland), Melina Nitschker (Germany), Lucas Petrelli (Italy), Marta Pardavi (Hungary), Louisa Slavkova (Bulgaria), and Clara Volintiru (Romania).
This publication on informal activism was carried out in conjunction with the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute and European Alternatives. Carnegie is grateful to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for its support for the Civic Research Network.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
1 Ferenc Miszlivetz, “Lost in Transformation: The Crisis of Democracy and Civil Society,” in Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection, ed. Sabine Selchow, Mary Kaldor, and Henrietta Moore (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 62, 64.
2 Joakim Ekman and Erik Amna, “Political Participation and Civic Engagement: Towards a New Typology,” Human Affairs 22 (2012): 283–300.
3 Francesca Polletta, “Social Movements in an Age of Participation,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 21, no. 4 (2016): 485–497; and Francesco Cavatorta, ed., Civil Society Activism Under Authoritarian Rule: A Comparative Perspective (London: Routledge, 2013).
4 Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (London: Polity, 2013); and Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
5 Adrian Smith, Mariano Fressoli, Dinesh Abrol, Elisa Arond, and Adrian Ely, Grassroots Innovation Movements (London: Routledge, 2016).
6 Helmut Anheier and Nikolas Scherer, “Voluntary Actions and Social Movements,” in The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, ed. Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 494–510.
7 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2013). See also Fred Powell, The Politics of Civil Society: Big Society and Small Government, Second Edition (Bristol: Policy Press, 2013), 33.
8 Kalypso Nicolaidis, “Reimagined Democracy in Times of Pandemic” in Democracy in Times of Pandemic: Different Futures Imagined, ed. Miguel Maduro and Paul Kahn (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 168–181.