Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

Are state borders an issue for non-profit orga­niza­ti­ons? A Case from the Upper-Rhine region

Social capital to tackle barriers at national borders

Although we can cross natio­nal borders easily in Europe, they still create barriers by impo­sing formal rules. Diffe­ren­ces in legal and admi­nis­tra­tive condi­ti­ons, languages, diffi­cul­ties in physi­cal access, econo­mic dispa­ri­ties, socio-cultu­ral diffe­ren­ces, and lack of trust are the most criti­cal barriers. Espe­ci­ally the socio-cultu­ral diffe­ren­ces and the level of trust connec­ted to social capi­tal are exci­ting points for non-profit orga­niza­ti­ons (NPOs).

Social capi­tal is unders­tood as trust in persons and insti­tu­ti­ons, norms and mutual support. To create social capi­tal, members of society need to inter­act with each other to create added value for the group, the network and the indi­vi­du­als. All these charac­te­ristics are perfectly presen­ted in NPOs. Thus, when people meet volun­t­a­rily in NPOs, social capi­tal emer­ges.
Where do NPOs stand in cross-border regi­ons in this regard? Do they help to create bridging social capi­tal (among various groups) to over­come the barriers at the natio­nal borders? Do they concen­trate on bonding social capi­tal due to inter­ac­tions within a coun­try (or gene­rally within a group)? At the Center for Phil­an­thropy Studies, we asked 252 NPOs in the Upper-Rhine region in three count­ries (France, Germany, and Switz­er­land) for their opinion.

Non-profit orga­niza­ti­ons and cross-border coope­ra­tion in the Upper-Rhine region

The over­all picture of colla­bo­ra­tion among NPOs across borders seems to be posi­tive. Among all poten­tial barriers, less than two-thirds of French, German, and Swiss NPOs in the Upper-Rhine region see only legal diffe­ren­ces as barriers to colla­bo­ra­tion. In other cases, language or econo­mic diffe­ren­ces are reco­gni­zed as obsta­cles for less than half or less than one-third of the NPOs.

The legal barriers are those that the NPOs cannot over­come alone. Both German and French NPOs report that they can do that with part­ners’ help, though not with the same inten­sity. The crucial opinion concer­ning bridging social capi­tal in this cross-border region is that miss­ing trust is not a barrier at all (stated only by 8.2% of NPOs as a problem). Thus, the willing­ness of NPOs to work toge­ther is present, and NPOs see the added value of cross-border cooperation.

The NPOs in the cross-border Upper-Rhine region are orien­ted toward local target groups and colla­bo­ra­tion with local part­ners (about 2/3 in compa­ri­son to ¼ orien­ted toward inter­na­tio­nal part­ners). From the perspec­tive of the social capi­tal buil­ding, it has signi­fi­cant conse­quen­ces. It seems that there still prevails a prefe­rence for networ­king with local part­ners. It is consis­tent with the over­all role of NPOs in provi­ding services for margi­nal target groups, espe­ci­ally at the local level, where they know about the needs of their target groups.

Although it is evident that there is no inher­ent barrier to coope­ra­tion and NPOs are ready to coope­rate across borders, there are other important stake­hol­ders — compa­nies. In the Upper-Rhine region, about 100,000 people (3% of the region’s work­force) alre­ady work in a coun­try other than where they live. NPOs should not be afraid to coope­rate with their foreign part­ners, as the busi­ness sector shows it can be done.

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