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Non-governmental organizations and social capital

Social capital is a term that is nowadays talked about at length by scientists, researchers, sociologists, politicians, and others who speak out on social issues. It is a difficult term to define, but nevertheless attempts are constantly being made to do so. One of the key elements of social capital highlighted by researchers is NGOs. They perform an important function in its construction and functioning, so it is worth looking at this dependency.

The concept of social capital

There is no single, accepted definition of the term social capital – however, many researchers have attempted to create one by describing what can be understood by the phrase. One of the authors of the term is considered to be Lyda J. Hanifan, who in 1916 described the social value of education in the context of the operation of rural educational centers, and who argued that it is neighborhood cooperation that can be called social capital. In literature, the key period for the emergence of this concept was the second half of the 20th century and sociological research on urban life. Names to mention when discussing the development of the concept are prominent researchers such as Pierre Bordieu, Robert Putnam, and Francis Fukuyama. Recalling some of the definitions, for example, P. Bordieu argues that capital is the sum of actual and potential resources that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of owning (…) a network of relationships, while R. Putnam, on the other hand, noted that this capital consists of norms and trust that make it possible to increase the efficiency of collective activity and achieve set goals. Thus, despite differences in the way capital is defined, each researcher recognizes its common key elements – the need for mutual trust and cooperation in society to achieve goals.

Social capital can be briefly defined as shared knowledge, achievements developed in society by people forming specific groups – organizations, associations, foundations, religious and professional unions, informal associations of acquaintances and so on. The solutions created by specific groups are drawn upon by, among others, politicians who create political systems and laws, lawyers who use specific arguments, or researchers who describe various sociological phenomena. According to the claims of the famous American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the level of trust between citizens directly determines economic and social progress and the competitiveness of states, which allows us to conclude that both society and the state are built on what is hidden under the concept of capital.  Fukuyama claims that social capital is the religious-national peculiarities of a particular nation. He also claims that this capital is the foundation of democracy. 

Robert Putnam distinguished types of social capital, which are:

–       Binding capital – refers to the strongest social ties observable, for example, in the family,

–       Bridging capital – occurs with socially created weaker and incidental ties – refers, for example, to collegial and business, industry relationships,

–       Subordinate capital – it is observed in vertical relationships between people in a structure such as employees.

The role of NGOs in the formation of social capital

Non-governmental organizations take an active part in the creation of what we call social capital. The presence and role of the so-called “third sector” in building social capital is growing every year, and researchers are increasingly noting its increased importance in terms of how the state functions and what society looks like in Poland and around the world. The know-how developed by NGOs “patches the hole” between citizens and the central government structure. NGOs often perform functions that, for reasons such as financial or strategic reasons, are not fulfilled by the government or local government, and which require the participation of a larger group of people and resources that are impossible for individuals to provide. This is what gives rise to the need for such a form of grassroots cooperation as NGOs – operating in the form of foundations, associations, unions, and other types of associations/organizations.

Non-governmental organizations operate in various areas of social life – education, health care, security, or the economy – and it is in these sectors that they replace central or local authorities. For example, the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, through regular fundraising, finances medical equipment for hospitals and other health care facilities and entities, thereby relieving the burden on the part of the state budget allocated to health care. In the educational field, a good example is, for example, the Strengthening Partnership for the Development and Education of Young Children project,established in 2007 by the “Sto Pociech” Foundation, based on cooperation in areas related to improving the educational, social, developmental situation of young children and their families from municipalities of different sizes. It is co-financed by the European Union under the European Social Fund (Human Capital Operational Program – National Cohesion Strategy). Another example of NGOs’ activities involving cooperation with the business sector, based on mutual exchange of knowledge, skills and experience, can be the cooperation of the Vocational Activity Unit in Piła with Kompania Piwowarska – the Unit took up the task of sewing ecological bags, created from banners used by Kompania’s activities. All these forms and examples of NGOs’ activities show how crucial a component of social capital they remain. In each of the sectors, NGOs make a significant contribution to building social trust and strengthening cooperation within social groups.

While examining the number of non-governmental organizations, it can be concluded that this form of social activity is developing and functioning more and more dynamically. In the case of Poland – according to CSO data in 2012. – there were 83.5 thousand organizations in the so-called third sector – 69.6 thousand associations and similar social organizations, 8.5 thousand foundations, 3.6 thousand organizations of economic, professional and employers’ self-government and 1.8 thousand religious entities conducting social activities. Over the past 15 years, the part of the NGO sector covered by the survey has grown and expanded intensively – between 1997 and 2012, the number of such organizations tripled.

It is also worth noting the impact of NGOs on the structure of employment – NGOs are often employers themselves. For example, in the Benelux countries (Belgium, or the Netherlands) people working in NGOs account for about 10-14% of all employed. In Poland, the rate is much lower – according to a study by the Klon/Jawor Association, 20% of Polish NGOs employ staff under an employment contract, while 45% of organizations do not employ staff at all. 

The development of the third sector is strongly linked to the social changes that are taking place in the world, mainly to the increased social awareness of citizens, who, thanks to the Internet, which is now widespread and available almost everywhere, also have increasing access to information. Thanks to social media, it is very quickly possible to obtain knowledge of how state and social institutions function, what hospitals or educational institutions lack, in which place and sector social assistance is needed. The development of NGOs is also positively influenced by funding provided by the European Union, which supports (also in material form) such forms of activity. Government authorities, not only in Poland, also recognize the important role of these organizations and are increasingly willing to listen to the voice of their representatives when creating new regulations and proposing solutions important to them.


  1. Pawłowska Elżbieta – Organizacje pozarządowe a kapitał społeczny – Zeszyty Naukowe Politechniki Śląskiej – Seria Organizacja i Zarządzanie – Z. 77 – Nr. kol. 1927 – 2015 r.
  2. Czachor Rafał – Organizacje pozarządowe a kapitał społeczny w Polsce
  3. Article Po co są organizacje pozarządowe (NGO)? – (accessed October 31, 2022)
  4. Article on social capital in the Encyclopedia of Management website by Maciej Kubit – (accessed 31.10.2022).

Adam Buwelski

The law student at the Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Warsaw. Currently works in a law firm, where he writes documents related to lawsuits and is responsible for contacting the clients. His main interests are criminal law and politics. He is an active member of Student Council, focused on work of the Promotion and Organization Comittee. Member of the law department of Students’ Ombudsman Team. Finalist of many high school Olympiads.

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Adam Buwelski

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