Sub-theme 03: [SWG] The Relational Messiness of Civil Society and its Constituencies

Marta Reuter
Stockholm University, Sweden
Liv Egholm
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Damien Mourey
L’Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, France

Call for Papers

In modern democratic societies, civil society and its institutional and organizational forms are often seen as the backbone of societal inclusiveness. However, civil society is a heterogeneous and diverse arena, comprising a wide range of organizational and individual actors in an intricate web of relationships. These relationships and varieties of stakeholders (Krashinsky, 1997) are the fundaments for creating, maintaining and developing civil society organizations (CSOs).
The constituting stakeholders come with different and sometimes divergent claims. Donors, funders, beneficiaries, volunteers, staff, regulators and others have different interests in, and representations of, the inclusiveness of a CSO. Elite actors have different expectations than the rank and file. However, meeting the expectations of inclusion by some stakeholders may trigger tensions with others (Ostrower & Stone, 2015). As inclusion is intricately interrelated with and constituted through exclusion mechanisms (Alexander, 2006), we need to raise the question of how different combinations and expectations of the stakeholders who make up the “constituency” of a CSO (Wijkström & Reuter, forthcoming) impact, and/or are impacted by, the organization’s activities in different ways.
The relationship between a CSO and its constituency is not static but evolves continuously over time in a complex manner. Different stakeholder or constituent categories become relatively more or less significant for the organization at different points in its lifespan, but also in response to unexpected developments in its institutional environment (e.g., Einarsson, 2012). The messiness of tensions, conflicts, competition, but also understanding and alliances between stakeholder categories or groups are a reality that all CSOs strive to handle in various ways.
The point of departure of this sub-theme is the realization that how a CSO develops, operates, and evolves is a matter of the relationships with its constituency. However, we need to understand better how and to what extent the constituency of a CSO has impact on its activities, and how these activities continuously create, maintain and reproduce concurrent inclusion and exclusion mechanisms that affect the inclusiveness of contemporary societies.
Thus, in this sub-theme, we welcome empirical and theoretical contributions that highlight and explore the complexity of motives, meanings, and mechanisms of the messy relationships between CSOs and their constituencies. In particular, we welcome papers addressing the following issues:

  • The complex processes and mechanisms through which certain stakeholder groups or categories over time become more important to a CSO, and others lose their relative importance for the organization; the causes and organizational consequences of such transformations; as well as the means (discursive and material tools, practices, etc.) through CSO-stakeholder relationships are maintained and cultivated – but also disrupted or disturbed. Of relevance here are also the roles played by conflicting perceptions of inclusiveness well as by the interplay of trust and distrust (cf. Reuter et al., 2013), in the processes through which relationships between stakeholders and CSOs are negotiated, reproduced and discontinued (Egholm, 2019).

  • The contradictions and paradoxes inherent to these relationships. This includes topics relating, for example, to [1] the increasingly hybrid nature of many CSOs (Brandsen et al., 2005; Donnelly-Cox, 2015); [2] the different institutional logics (Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Lallemand-Stempak, 2017) that in many cases govern the relationships between CSOs and different stakeholder groups; and [3] the ways in which CSO constituencies affect the creation, maintenance and development of concurrent inclusion and exclusion mechanisms.

  • Different forms and manifestations of power which are crucial to the dynamic of the relationships between CSOs and stakeholders. How do various types of power affect the relationship? This issue has often been framed as “power-over” potentially leading to mission drift (Egholm et al., 2019). Yet, there is also a relational, processual and productive perspective on power whereby it is no longer viewed as a thing that is possessed to impose one’s will but a phenomenon that is co-developed within the confines of creative relations (Follett, 1925/2003).

  • The spatial dimension of CSOs’ relationships to their constituencies. CSOs contribute often to service provision, political engagement and civic capacity in specific communities where their constituencies are embedded (Sharkey, 2018; Brandtner & Dunning, 2020; Marwell & Morrissey, 2020). How are their relationships to stakeholders and target groups shaped by local and regional political, cultural and economic prerequisites? And which organizational structures and practices enable CSOs to have regional effects beyond their self-identified target groups and stakeholders?

By looking for patterns and commonalities in the results rendered by a variety of approaches to this topic, we hope to stimulate cross-disciplinary reflections and learning, and to help advance the theoretical and methodological conversation on how CSO constituencies affect the creation, maintenance and reproduction of concurrent mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.


  • Alexander, J. (2006): The Civil Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Battilana, J., & Dorado, S. (2010): “Building sustainable hybrid organizations: The case of commercial microfinance organizations.” Academy of Management Journal, 53 (6), 1419–1440.
  • Brandsen, T., van de Donk, W., & Putters, K. (2005): “Griffins or chameleons? Hybridity as a permanent and inevitable characteristic of the third sector.” International Journal of Public Administration, 28 (9–10), 749–769.
  • Brandtner, C., & Dunning, C. (2019): “Nonprofits as urban infrastructure.” In: W.W. Powell & P. Bromley (eds.): The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 271–291.
  • Donnelly-Cox, G. (2015): “Civil society governance. Hybridization within the third sector and social entreprise domains.” In: J.-L. Laville, D. Young & P. Eynaud (eds.): Civil Society, the Third Sector and Social Enterprise: Governance and Democracy. London: Routledge, 52–66.
  • Egholm, L. (2019): “Complicated translations.” In: J. Alexander, A. Voyer & A. Lund (eds.): Civil Sphere and the Nordic Countries. Cambridge: Polity Press, 64–94.
  • Egholm, L., Heyse, L., & Mourey, D. (2019): “Civil society organizations: The site of legitimizing the common good – a literature review.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 31 (1), 1–18.
  • Follett, M.P. (1925/2003): “Power.” In: H.C. Metcalf & L. Urwick (eds.): Dynamic Administration. The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. London: Routledge, 95–116.
  • Krashinsky, M. (1997): “Stakeholder theories of the nonprofit sector. One cut at the economic literature.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 8 (2), 149–161.
  • Lallemand-Stempak, N. (2017): “Rethinking hybrids’ challenges: The case of French mutual insurance companies.” M@ n@ gement, 20 (4), 336–367.
  • Marwell, N.P., & Morrissey, S.L. (2020): “Organizations and the production of urban poverty.” Annual Review of Sociology, 46, 233–250.
  • Reuter, M., Wijkström, F., & Kristensson Uggla, B. (eds.) (2013): Trust and Organizations: Confidence Across Borders. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sharkey, P. (2018): Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wijkström, F., & Reuter, M. (forthcoming): “Stakeholders, constituents, citizens and beneficiaries.” In: M. Meyer, G. Donnelly-Cox & F. Wijkström (eds.): The Research Handbook of Nonprofit Governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Marta Reuter is a Senior Associate Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University, Sweden, affiliated also with the Stockholm Center for Civil Society Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics. Her interests revolve around the relationship between civil society and the state; transnational organizing in civil society; CSOs as actors in societal governance and regulation; and organizational governance in CSOs. Marta has written on transnationalization in large movement organizations; state audit; civil society-government compacts; and think-tanks as part of civil society, in, among others, ‘VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations’.
Liv Egholm is an Associate Professor at Department of Management, Philosophy and Politic (MPP) at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. She is currently the co-leader of the CISTAS project (‘Civil Society in the Shadow of the State”,, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and PI on a Tuborg grant; ‘Self-organized communities, democratic management and social media” and a Marie Curie grant; Ecovillages as Laboratories of Sustainability and Social Change. Liv’s research interests concern philanthropic gift-giving, legitimation processes, practice theory, pragmatism and the blurred borders and messiness between civil society, state and market.
Damien Mourey is a Professor at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, France. His research interests relate to accountability practices and mechanisms in the non-profit sector, the measure and evaluation of social impact, financial cooperatives, legitimation processes and the fast-evolving relationships between public funders and associations in France. He also has contributed to the development of pragmatist-inspired ideas into the field of organization studies. Damien has published in international journals such as ‘Accounting, Organizations and Society’, ‘Scandinavian Journal of Management’, and VOLUNTAS’. He has been Vice-Director of a scientific chair about the Management and Governance of Financial Cooperatives until 2018 at Sorbonne University.