Author:Wijkstrom, Filip
Position:Statistical Data Included


Some observers speculate whether there exists a nonprofit sector at all in Sweden, others conclude that the Swedish nonprofit sector must be very small - in terms of the welfare services it produces. This is the stereotypical and somewhat biased picture of Sweden that has too long prevailed internationally. Data from a major Swedish research project, within the framwork of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, (1) is used in the following article to give a better picture of the Swedish nonprofit sector, and to highlight some of its main characteristics.

Sweden is considered to be a social-democratic welfare state regime, and in the paper the importance of the popular movements, the membership and volunteering, and the general negligence of nonprofit activities in the mainstream welfare state literature are highlighted and discussed. The paper concludes that in its economic size the Swedish nonprofit sector is similar to the sectors in the other countries included in the Johns Hopkins Project, but that it is financed to a lesser degree with governmental money. This is an effect of the special structure of the Swedish sector. While the sectors in most of the other countries in the study are dominated by nonprofits active in the core domains of the welfare state - social services, education, health care - the major Swedish nonprofit actors are to be found in the field of culture and recreation, and in interest mobilization. Nonprofit activities within the core domains of the welfare state are massively financed with public money - in Sweden as in most other countries. Since these core domains only represent a minor part of the total Swedish sector, the Swedish sector is less financed with public money than the sectors in most of the other countries included in the Johns Hopkins survey.

Finally, the relations between the Swedish nonprofit sector and the government are described and analyzed, and the current development towards a contract culture is briefly discussed in the light of this development and the traditional role of the sector in Sweden.

Changing Focus or Changing Role? The Swedish Nonprofit Sector in the 1990s.

In earlier research and international understanding, a Swedish nonprofit sector has been understood as being relatively small and highly dependent upon the Swedish government (e.g., Boli, 1991; 1992; James, 1989).

In this article, data from a major Swedish research project, conducted within the framework of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, is used to give us a better picture of the Swedish nonprofit sector's size and structure, and highlight some of its main characteristics (see, e.g., Lundstrom and Wijkstrom, 1997; Lundstrom, 1996; Wijkstrom, 1997).

The article also discusses the more recent development in Sweden during the late 1990s (spurred, for example, by the social economy debate) and raises the question whether the changes we can detect today, bear sign only of a slight change of focus in the operations of the Swedish nonprofit and voluntary organizations, or if they indeed are indicators of a more fundamental shift in the basic understanding of the role or function of the nonprofit sector in Sweden.

But, before entering into the more recent research conducted and the lessons we have learned from this, let us first highlight some general characteristics of Sweden, that should have an impact on any discussion of a Swedish nonprofit sector. Let us also, for the sake of clarity, briefly recapitulate the organizations or phenomena we are in fact dealing with.

Sweden - a Social-democratic Welfare-state Regime

The Swedish nonprofit sector has a different lesson to teach us than many of the nonprofit sectors in other industrialized countries. One way to understand the development of a nonprofit sector in Sweden is to recognize the "trust-based mutual dependency" that has evolved between the sector and the welfare state in Scandinavia (Klausen and Selle, 1996).

Sweden, alongside the other Scandinavian countries, has been considered to be an archetypical example of a "social-democratic" welfare-state regime, as argued for example by Gosta Esping-Andersen (1990) in his now already classic analysis. The main difference of this regime, as compared to the "liberal" welfare state regimes (e.g., in the US, Australia, and Canada) or the "corporatist" welfare state regimes (e.g., in Germany, Austria, and France) is that principles of universalism and de-commodification of social rights, through general and standardized welfare programs - run by the Swedish government - were extended not only to the working class, but also to the new middle classes. The welfare state would thus promote an equality in terms of highest standards, not an equality in terms of minimal needs. In Esping-Andersen's own words, this "implied, first, that services and benefits be upgraded to levels commensurate with even the most discriminating tastes of the new middle classes; and, second, that equality be furnished by guaranteeing workers full participation in the quality of rights enjoyed by the better-off" (ibid., p. 27).

Division of Labour

This "trust-based mutual dependency" between sector and state, lead to a consensus relationship in Sweden in the mid-19th century, which seems to differ from the conflict or competitive relationship between sector and state, that are to be found in many other countries. This consensus relationship was also an important part of the "silent social contract" between the different sectors in Swedish society, a contract which lead up to a situation of very strict "division of labour" in society. Business life and our large industrial corporations were understood to cater for export and import, as well as for for profit commercial arrangements, while the state, through central and local government, was supposed to take care of such areas as military defence, health care, social services, and primary and university education.

The role and responsibilities assigned to the popular movements and different interest organizations in this arrangement was on the one hand to function as a mediator of interests and basic values between citizens and the state or other interests, and on the other hand to cater for the arrangement of leisure or recreational activities for - and through - the population. Furthermore the role as "schools for democracy" was often associated with the voluntary associations. Also adult education - outside primary education and the traditional university system - was mostly in the hands of educational associations and folk high schools, run by, or associated with the major popular movements.

The Concept of Charity and a Popular Movement Tradition

Historically, the concept of charity has had a very negative ring in Sweden and in the Swedish social policy debate. This negative attitude can be understood to have originated from two different conditions. The first one is that historically the early charity arrangements and organizations were part of the poor-law system. The labour movement and associated organizations - such as the highly influential handicap movement - revolted against this system as being inhumane. Accordingly, it was replaced by a welfare-state system based on social or civil rights, as described above. The other major source of irritation and suspicion towards the idea of charity is associated with power and the right of distinct interest groups to formulate and put on the social and political agenda the issues of their concern. Charity arrangements were often understood as instruments of the more fortunate classes, used for covering up social inequalities rather than achieving equal rights and values for poor people, and thus preserving the existing power structures (Sjoberg and Vammen, 1995).

In contrast to the American practice, the Swedish use of the charity concept (valgorenhet) exclusively refers to the field of social services, and it does not embrace arts, culture, education, health care, and other activities which, while contributing to public welfare, do not necessarily target the poor. This is not only true with reference to historical conditions, as shown in Lundstrom and Wijkstrom (1997, pp. 17-21). In 1996 it was decided that nonprofit organizations within the field of social services in Stockholm should receive more economic support from local government. In a comment to this, Lars Forsell, a Social Democrat and member of the social welfare board, stated that:

I, and others with me, will fight to expand the [voluntary] sector. We will promote this growth, and it will grow ... But the responsibilities of society [i.e., the state] should never come into question, and it is important that the word "charity" is counteracted. (Olsson, 1996, author's translation) Instead of charity and philanthropy becoming the main pillars of the nonprofit sector in Sweden, a particular "popular movement tradition" has emerged (Lundstrom and Wijkstrom, 1997). The key words of this tradition are open and active membership, transparency in operations and administration; a high degree of formal internal democracy and justice, and a generous access to public policy making. This has been coupled with economic support from government in the form of general, almost non-restricted subsidies. These subsidies are calculated on the basis of the number of active members and the number of times they meet to do whatever the organization is supposed to do, e.g., scouting, reading lyrics, sporting, helping, etc.

Popular Movements, Neo-cooperatives and Foundations(2)

The popular movements (folkrorelserna) are the most important nonprofit organizations in Sweden today, and they can be understood as having emerged - in a rough approximation - in three major waves.

Before these more open and popular social movements entered the scene, there existed a number of more exclusive societies called sallskap or associationer. These were...

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