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Muenster- 2014 - Conference Report

Conference Report

11th International Conference of ISTR


The International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR) held its 11th International Conference in Muenster, Germany, July 22-25, 2014.  This charming University city with its walking promenade and Schloss Castle created an atmosphere for open exchange and dialogue among all of the 550 delegates from 62 countries.  Our hosts at the University of Muenster provided a wonderful venue for a relaxed, warm and friendly four days.


Plenary Sessions

After words of welcome by Wendy Earles on behalf of ISTR and Dr. Andreas Schlüter, chairman of the German Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft on behalf of the funders, Annette Zimmer introduced the keynote speaker, Claus Offe. Claus Offe is Professor of Political Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance and a famous social theorist for many decades. For many people in the public this was a great ‘meet the author’ opportunity.

The title of his talk was State Capacity and Civil Society: Reflections on their Mutual Indispensability.  Without the support of powerpoint pictures, he sketches civil society in the centre of a triangle made up by government/hierarchy, market/profit-making firms and identity-based communities/families & tribes. Civil society or the voluntary sector is on equal distance from these three corners and their specific  behavior or modes of communication and dominant drives: reason for government, interest for the market and passion for the community. Civil society is dependent on these corners – rights and tax money from government, cumulated assets and CSR from the market, solidarity from the community – but it must maintain distance as well, and position itself antithetically and as possible alternative or substitute. The usual terms ‘non-governmental’ and ‘non-profit’ for civil society organizations stress the difference for two of the three corners. Would it not be good to stress also the ‘non-tribal’ character of civil society, and would not it be better to speak about a ‘fourth sector’ instead of the ‘third sector’?

Offe has dealt with the relationships between civil society and the three corners of his triangle in an article in 2000.[1] Now he focuses on recent developments in the relationships between civil society and market, given the huge economic problems and of today: the inability of market capitalism to generate enough work and income for everybody, the immense public and private debts, the environmental burden of economic growth and the failure of economic growth to add to happiness. The capitalist model is in a deep crisis and there is no systemic alternative for capitalism. However, civil society organizations and initiatives might help to limit and to compensate for negative consequences of the capitalist market economy and they might / should contribute to innovations to make this economic model more feasible and viable for society. Initiatives to develop schemes for a basic income are an example, other promising developments can be found in the sphere of consumption (consumer activism, collaborative consumption, prosumption, p-to-p lending). To the surprise of some Dutch listeners, Offe mentions that Amsterdam is the place where new developments flourish in particular.

The discussion touches diverse issues as the idea of tribes (with Offe refusing the Muslim Brotherhood a civil society approval because it is a tribal movement and refusing Maffesoli’s concept of neo-tribes as overstretching the concept), the risks and benefits of smartphones (with the non-user Offe defending their positive potentials), time perversities (people in paid employments often lack time to get deeper involved in civil society and the unemployed may have time but are to occupied to find paid work to get more involved) and Max Weber, who was missed badly in Offe’s theoretical considerations by a German scholar in the audience. Offe admits the deficiency and pays tribute to Weber by linking him to the exchange of home appliances as an interesting postcapitalist mode of reintegrating economic and private life.  

In a thought-provoking speech, Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, discussed four myths on philanthropy in Africa that we should explore (or, with permission of the audience, explode!).

A first myth is that African’s top philanthropists are all men. This may be the case if we define philanthropy in terms of high net worth individuals who give money to a specific cause. However, this is a very narrow understanding of philanthropy, ignoring other forms of giving with a long tradition in Africa. Think for instance of a woman living in a rural village who supports the education of her neighbours’ children. While the amount of money involved doesn’t match the huge numbers circulating in big philanthropy, in relative terms she may give 10% of her income while a top philanthropist donates 1% of his income. People who are not wealthy give from the core and not from the surplus, and even if they give small amounts, this type of individual giving involves a vast majority in Africa and is a fundamental expression of solidarity.

The second myth is that philanthropy in Africa is rising. While this narrative may signal a positive trend, it suggests that nothing was happening before, which does injustice to a well-established tradition for many years. It would be more precise to state that certain types of philanthropy in certain contexts are rising. In addition, it is not just the ‘what’ or ‘type’ of philanthropy that matters, but also the ‘how’. Here Sowa critically remarks that philanthropy is not by definition a good thing. At its worst, it can abuse the power that money gives. By asking the ‘how’-question, we can make philanthropy work at its best: an expression of solidarity instead of charity, doing with instead of doing to people, and using a whole range of social, political and cultural assets rather than merely financial investment to change things. For example, philanthropy should not just aim at building a school, but also invest in social development and human rights activities that can actually lead to good education. 

Third, there is the myth that the private sector has all the answers. Rather than full answers, companies can bring certain strengths, but here collaboration with government and civil society is needed. An issue discussed related to the ignorance often encountered among private donors who may be very successful in their business yet have very little understanding of social development. It therefore is necessary to find better ways to give them information and advise them on the various ways in which they can be involved and reach valuable outcomes. Here the knowledge that exists in the third sector can guide private philanthropy, and again, we need to acknowledge context-dependency and the need for a spectrum of activities and understandings. 

Finally, there is the popular idea that we need to invest in women and girls, because they are the key to change. This myth has been really functional at the level of rhetoric, but there is very little understanding of where the philanthropic money actually is invested. In practice, Theo Sowa observes, very little money goes to women’s human rights or the women’s movement, which for instance would be more effective to reach good education instead of simply giving scholarships to girls in secondary education. Theo Sowa critically reflects on the trending notion of ‘turning every women into an entrepreneur’. First of all, African women have always been very entrepreneurial, and second, not every African woman wants to be an entrepreneur. Here again, it should be emphasized that a certain idea can be great in a particular context, but harmful in another, so universal tools should be avoided. 

Ms. Sowa ends with an explicit appeal to civil society scholars, who need to further explore (and preferably explode) some of these myths by asking the kind of questions that will make people look differently at philanthropy – that is, by changing the paradigms and put academic rigor in the debate. This is crucial since the prevailing myths are very powerful. They make ordinary people believe that what they are doing is not philanthropy because they are not rich and not part of a particular elite. Theo Sowa encourages the audience not to stay in their small disciplinary box asking ever more specialized questions, but to break them open, to ‘change the shape of the tables around which we need to sit.’  An inspiring metaphor for future research on philanthropy. 

The concluding plenary session was an Oxford Style debate on the question: What Kind of Civil Society for What Kind of Europe? Towards a New Research Agenda. The session, facilitated by Professor Edith Archambault (Université de Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, Centre d'Economie de la Sorbonne CES) and Professor Rupert Graf Strachwitz (Maecenata Institute in Berlin), and featured a group of speakers from various university institutions: Boris Streçanský, Center for Philanthropy in Bratislava, Slovakia; Priska Daphi, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main; Olga Kononykhina, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin and University of Heidelberg; and Sarah Förster, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.

Prof. Archambault opened the debate and stated that despite the diversity of civil society traditions and state-society relations, mixes of actors, political and economic differences, all European societies face similar problems related with aging societies, immigration, work-family balance and more. The financial crisis of 2008, austerity measures and other policy changes, as well as waves of protest, rising xenophobia, reemergence of protectionism, all brought forth the need to reexamine the role of civil society agents. She concluded by saying: “CSOs can blow air in the short of breath democracies in Europe.”

The ensuing debate looked at the nexus between civil society research and this broad question. Prof. Strachwitz encouraged the panelists to consider how research and researchers can assist CSOs to better engage with this great challenge. Priska Daphi encouraged scholars of civil society to seek field-specific theories and methodologies. Sarah Foster urged scholars of civil society to engage in the question of different organizational forms and the ways they are embedded in the field. According to her, examining how the realities match our theories and revisiting theory and its policy implications can provide much help to practice as well. Olga Kononykhina elaborated on the nexus between theory and practice. She expressed hope that research will be more applied. She demonstrated this through an example of the research of social capital, where she argued that better understanding of internal and external the social engagement of actors can affect the potential for empowerment of these actors. Boris Streçanský reminded the panel and audience that Europe is not uniform. Eastern and Central Europe, he noted, are still undergoing a long-term emancipation process, which can be assisted by research both in providing a conceptual framework for the actors, but also by providing civil society actors with policy work and advocacy training.

The discussion with the audience focused around the tensions between research and practice, and between scholars and practitioners, but also whether the EU is moving towards marketization or politicization, and therefore whether the focus on civil society shouldn’t be replaced with a focus on social innovation and enterprise.  Prof. Strachwitz summarized the discussion by pointing out two divides that need bridging. One between research and practice and the second between civil society studies and more general social research.

Sessions and Social Media

The program included 150 paper and panel sessions and 19 posters.  Eight special sessions were also integrated into the program and contributed to the Society’s mission to offer new ideas and focus on thematic areas that have traditionally been under researched. The program and conference abstracts can be found on the ISTR website.  Many papers presented in Muenster are currently being submitted for Volume IX of the ISTR Conference Working Paper Series and we also anticipate that some papers will be published in Voluntas.  A mobile app was used for the first time to provide easy access  to the program, info about city of Muenster, restaurants, as well as contacts for the participants. The overall evaluation was  positive for those that used the mobile app with a number of excellent suggestions to improve the app for 2016.


Conference Support

The conference would not have been possible without the support from generous funders and our hosts, the University of Muenster and Institut für Politikwissenschaft.  Supporters include: Bertelsmann Stiftung, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Fritz Thyssen Stiftung fur Wissenschaftsforderung, German DFG, Körber-Stiftung Forum fur Impulse, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Stifterverband fur die Deutsche Wissenschaft, Stiftung Mercator, Vodafone Stiftung Deutchland, ZEIT-Stiftung, Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius,  and Springer.  

We also want to thank those organizations that supported the conference by placing advertisements on the mobile app and in the program: IUPUI, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy; European Research Network on Philanthropy (ERNOP); Alliance, University of Southern California, Sol Price School of Public Policy; Kumarian Press, Schulich School of Business, York University; The China Nonprofit Review, Brill; School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University; ARNOVA; UNO School of Public Administration, University of Nebraska Omaha; University of Kent; Gower Applied Research; Rockefeller Archive Center; Springer;  and Journal of Co-ooperative Organization and Management, Elsevier.

In the spirit of voluntarism the strong academic program was made possible by the scholarly contributions of many, many reviewers and by the Academic Conference Committe and we thank them for their ongoing support!


[1] Claus Offe, Civil society and social order: demarcating and combining market, state and community, European Journal of Sociology 41(1) (2000): 71-94 (doi: 10.1017/S000397560000789X).


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