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.