Success of Johns Hopkins’ Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project in South Africa

By Bridget Mudd Post date: Feb 03, 2016


  • Newly democratic South Africa has features of corporatism.
  • Under conditions of corporatism, “neither a social democratic nor a liberal non-profit regime is foreseeable” (Social Surveys).
  • Key stakeholders should continue to monitor and disseminate information about civil society and the nonprofit sector in order to gauge South Africa’s movement towards either a liberal or statist regime.

In 1999, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies partnered with Social Surveys as part of its Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project in order to analyze the scope, structure, financing, and role of the private nonprofit sector in South Africa. As the first nationally representative study of the South African non-profit sector, this project proved highly successful in (1)“helping the non-profit sector enhance their identity and knowledge of its role in the development and democratic process,” and (2) revealing the corporatist relationship between the state and South African civil society. Going forwards, key stakeholders should continue to disseminate representative surveys of the nonprofit sector in order to monitor the movement of South African civil society and adjust approaches to democratization accordingly.


The emergence of the political economy marked a period of volatile relations between the state and civil society in South Africa. Over the course of the 20th century, the government increasingly intervened in the free market, “seeking to structure the interactions between the market economy and civil society to suit to dominant interests in white society” (Social Surveys). This resulted in the economic interdependence between racially exclusive NPOs and the state. In contrast, the state deliberately marginalized or repressed “racially inclusive” NPOs that were largely concentrated in disenfranchised, impoverished neighborhoods. For example, the state “allowed its disinterested neglect of the service-oriented NPOs to justify that black welfare was not the white state’s problem” (Social Surveys). This fueled tensions between the two sectors, inciting NPOs to rise up against the state. In early 1920s, the mid-1940s, the 1950s, the mid-1970s, and the 1980s through the early 1990s, NPOs joined forces with the oppositional movements and ultimately helped bring about an end to apartheid.

The end of apartheid in 1994 revolutionized the role of NPOs. Following political negotiations, the state created central roles for NPOs in the political and social redevelopment of South Africa. According to the former Minister of Social Development, “the basic twin expectations of government are that NGOs will firstly, continue to act as monitors of the public good and safeguard the interests of the disadvantaged sections of society… the government’s second expectation is that NGOs will assist in expanding access to social and economic services that create jobs and eradicate poverty among the poorest of the poor” (Social Surveys). To substantiate these new roles for NPOs, the state created a legal and policy framework that detailed the specifics of the working relationship between the state and civil society. However, the framework was “elaborated with very little empirical, quantitative knowledge about the non-profit” (Social Surveys). This resulted in chaos within the sector as well as widespread confusion between the public and nonprofit sectors as to what their respective roles and responsibilities were. Therefore, the weak framework that infused the new relationship with uncertainty actually worked to undermine the fact that the state created the framework in the first place. Ultimately, the lack of knowledge about the South African civil society and the poor communication between this sector and the government inspired Johns Hopkins to undertake this project in order to “shed light on… the current complexities facing policy makers and stakeholders” (Social Surveys).


The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies began the Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (CNP) in 1991 as part of the largest systemic effort ever undertaken to analyze the scope, structure, financing and role of private nonprofit sectors in various countries around the world. The Center staff team includes Director, Lester M. Salamon; Research Project Manager, Megan Haddock; Senior Research Associate, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, Senior Research Associate; and Communications Associate, Chelsea Newhouse. In order to collect data that would be easy to compare across countries, Johns Hopkins partnered with teams of local associates in the respective project countries tasked with implementing a common framework and utilizing the same information-gathering strategies. Mark Swilling of the University of Witwatersrand is the project’s Local Associate in South Africa. The Center also partnered with Social Surveys, a leading South African social and development research company, tasked with designing and implementing the study of the South African non-profit sector.


Johns Hopkins’ Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project employs an empirical approach to survey dissemination and data collection. In order to ensure comparability across countries, the Center uses a unique methodology that features a common framework, set of definitions, and information-gathering strategies. The project’s goal is to (1) document to size and scope of civil society, (2) evaluate the positive and negative effects of nonprofit organizations, (3) publicize the findings, and (4) build local capacity to carry on the work in the future (Johns Hopkins).

The Johns Hopkins methodology was not applicable to South Africa, and therefore needed innovative modification. Unlike other countries featured in the Johns Hopkins project, South Africa lacked a comprehensive list of NPOs. Instead, government records only represented registered non-profits, “and thus did not reflect the thousands of community-based NPOs in South Africa” (Social Surveys). In order to accommodate for this discrepancy, Social Surveys employed a geo-demographic model where they analyzed 40 South African communities at random. Within each community, a “snowballing” technique was used to obtain a comprehensive list of NPOs. These NPOs were then thoroughly analyzed using a combination of surveys and interviews. Survey results were then “weighted back to the total number of communities within each community type in the country, which in turn provided an accurate estimate of the size and profile of the non-profit sector in South Africa” (Social Surveys). This methodology was piloted in 1998, and most of the fieldwork was conducted in 1999.

Survey results suggested a troublesome relationship between the state and civil society. In 1998, the government spent R5.8 billion in the nonprofit sector; however, the bulk of funds were channeled into the social services (R2.1 billion), health (R1.7 billion), and development and housing sectors (R1.1 billion). These sectors were characterized by “well-developed, formal NPOs, which tended to be more active in established, urban working class and middle class communities than in the poorer communities” (Social Surveys). The lack of government funding in the poorer neighborhoods suggests “a possible trend that may raise concerns about who benefits from government funding support” (Social Surveys).

The South African government’s discriminatory spending pattern reflects a larger systemic issue concerning the state-civil society relationship. Specifically, this relationship is institutionalized by a “corporatist pact” in South Africa. This “pact” is driven by (1) a confident black middle class in control of state power, (2) a well-organized NPO sector with a considerable capacity to deliver, (3) a conservative macro-economic model, (4) a well-organized corporate sector, and (4) an international donor environment that favor funding NPOs (Social Surveys). This combination of corporatist factors frustrates prospects of a social democratic or a liberal non-profit regime. First, the close working relationship between state and business de-incentivizes either party to listen to the NPO’s suggestions of adopting neo-Keynesian solutions. Second, the extensive state funded social development scheme threatens democratic principles. Ultimately, the corporatist pact and the state’s discriminatory spending patterns undermine democratization.


This project revealed troubling prospects about democratization in South Africa. Going forwards, a de facto liberal regime may emerge in the medium to long term if (1) state spending on the social sector is decreased, (2) fiscal pressures on the state is increased, and (3) private sector social responsibility continues to increase (Social Surveys). However, the state could also dissolve into a statist regime in the long run if (1) a self-interested political elite uses business to serve its own ends and (2) the state reverts to using repression as a political weapon. In order to gauge South Africa’s movement towards either a liberal or statist regime, key stakeholders should continue to monitor and disseminate information about the nonprofit sector, which reveals valuable information about the state-civil society relationship.


Works Cited

1. Salamon, Lester M. Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies. Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy, n.d. Web. <>.

2.Swilling, M. "The Size and Scope of the Non-Profit Sector in South Africa." Social Surveys Africa. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.