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Defending Civic Space in the United States: Lessons Learned Around the World

In a context of democratic erosion, U.S. civil society organizations face a widening array of legal, political, and security threats. They can learn from the experiences of civic activists in backsliding democracies around the world.

Published on May 9, 2024

Amid rising attacks on democratic norms and institutions, civil society organizations in the United States confront a widening array of threats. New restrictions on protest and attacks on freedom of expression have proliferated in recent years, particularly at the state level. Civil society organizations and activists are encountering legal and political intimidation tactics that are eerily similar to those used to harass and silence activists in Hungary, India, Türkiye, and other backsliding democracies. Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his track record in government, and the proposals put forward by his political allies suggest that a second Trump administration could further accelerate these trends. No matter the outcome of the election, however, challenges are likely to persist at the state level. They call for concerted action by philanthropic actors and civil society organizations seeking to protect the U.S. nonprofit sector and civic freedoms more broadly.

Restrictions on civil society and individuals’ right to organize and advocate freely have been defining features of the global democratic recession that has engulfed all regions of the world over the past two decades. Instead of violently suppressing dissenting voices, antidemocratic leaders have become increasingly skilled at using legal and administrative tactics, harassment, and stigmatizing narratives to weaken their opposition. Yet activists and organizations, along with their international allies, have also learned valuable lessons on how to adapt, survive, and fight back. Their experiences offer guidance for U.S. civil society groups and foundations as they brace themselves for present and future attacks.

Take Proactive Security Measures

As a first step, civil society organizations should undertake holistic internal risk assessments in order to build their resilience to potential attacks. U.S. organizations may resist the idea that their situation is comparable to the safety challenges facing human rights defenders in Egypt, El Salvador, or other countries marked by severe state repression. Yet U.S. activists and civil society organizations do confront a diverse set of threats, ranging from online and offline abuse, doxxing, and intimidation by extremist actors to state surveillance, politically motivated subpoenas and investigations, vilification by public officials, and arrests in the case of journalists and protesters. Security assessments and risk management plans can help mitigate some of these challenges and create processes for managing others, to ensure that organizations are not caught by surprise.  

Foundations and organizations supporting activists in challenging political contexts have developed numerous tools to help advocates create context-specific strategies, such as the Front Line Defenders Workbook on Security, Security in a Box, Totem’s digital security training, and the Holistic Security Manual developed by Tactical Tech. Many of these resources offer practical insights for U.S. organizations, including in the increasingly critical domain of cybersecurity. New U.S.-focused initiatives, such as the NGO Information Sharing and Analysis Center (NGO-ISAC), also offer resources and training. For example, organizations should consider how staff members use and engage on social media platforms and what measures they can take to avoid doxxing and handle threats. Philanthropic foundations should also build funding for security training and protection measures into their grants, as many funders working with human rights organizations globally have done in recent years.

International experiences offer additional transferable lessons. For one, civil society advocates working in insecure and polarized political environments underscore that navigating online abuse and harassment and working on difficult issue areas can fuel stress, exhaustion, and burnout, even in the absence of immediate threats to their safety. Holistic security strategies should therefore include measures to protect staff members’ mental health and well-being, in addition to their physical, digital, and legal protection. Another insight is the importance of approaching safety through a collective, rather than a purely individual, lens. Organizations and advocates experience risks and develop resilience not as atomized entities but as members of coalitions and communities. Collective protection approaches, therefore, seek to balance short-term responses to urgent threats with broader efforts to reinforce the cohesion and sustainability of organizations, networks, and communities—for example, by engaging in a collective threat analysis, developing joint safety protocols, and addressing internal organizational tensions.

Navigate Existing Law

Antidemocratic and illiberal political actors often go after their critics by ramping up enforcement of existing laws and regulations in a selective and politicized manner. In Hungary, for instance, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has used tax audits as a tool to target independent civil society groups. Lengthy and onerous investigations have allowed Hungarian state authorities to weaken its critics under the guise of law enforcement and good governance. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has justified restrictions on nongovernmental organizations by claiming that these groups serve as conduits for money laundering and terrorist financing. In general, governments around the world have used the weak regulation of the nonprofit sector and the existence of corrupt or nontransparent practices to justify imposing overly broad controls.

Despite formal regulation, the U.S. nonprofit sector is not immune from public and political suspicion, not least due to the opacity surrounding dark money groups that work to influence political outcomes. Recent efforts by the House of Representatives to probe U.S. nonprofits engaged in voter registration, education, and turnout drives or to challenge the tax-exempt status of various universities further illustrate the vulnerabilities of the nonprofit sector to politicized investigations that make use of gray zones in existing law.

To protect themselves against potential challenges, U.S. civil society organizations should ensure that they are aware of and compliant with federal and state laws, for instance by undertaking a legal compliance audit and consulting experts on how to navigate ambiguities in the law. All staff and board members need to know the existing rules and how they relate to their professional duties (and ensure that they separate their personal and professional activities as needed). For example, many U.S. organizations do not realize that the sweeping provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Act might apply to them simply because they accept money from a foreign government. Failure to comply with lobbying rules or state laws on charitable solicitation registration can also create challenges. Of course, the experience of Hungarian civil society shows that ethical leadership and legal compliance does not necessarily protect groups from unfair and politicized attacks. Organizations must not overreact by censoring themselves or “obeying in advance” with the political vision that undemocratic political actors want to enact. However, an organization that is on solid legal and ethical footing has a stronger defense against heightened political scrutiny and potential legal and administrative challenges.

Anticipate and Monitor Legislative and Regulatory Threats

One of the core features of closing civic space around the world has been the weaponization of the law. Governments have cracked down on oppositional activism, free expression, and protest by enacting legislation that claims to ensure public order and national security, fend off corruption in the charitable sector, reduce disinformation, and counter terrorism or extremism. Vague and ambiguous wording often enables state authorities to use these laws to investigate and prosecute critics, all the while upholding the appearance of the rule of law.

In various countries, civil society advocates have successfully fought off new legislative and regulatory threats. They have done so by anticipating and swiftly mobilizing against restrictive draft laws before they are passed, usually by orchestrating a concerted response that brings together a broad range of allies. In 2013, for example, harsh, proposed amendments to Kenya’s NGO law were successfully defeated because organizations paid attention to the issue early on, held meetings and consultations to educate themselves about it, and invested in cultivating legislative champions and developing effective counternarratives that convinced parliamentarians to vote against the measure. More than fifty NGOs met regularly to coordinate their advocacy activities. They continued working on the issue even after Parliament rejected the concerning draft amendments, because they recognized that restrictive regulations could easily make a comeback. In Brazil, Nigeria, and Uganda, national coalitions and networks of nongovernmental organizations have played similarly central roles in organizing against restrictive draft laws.

In the United States, some legal threats to civic freedoms have already received media and advocacy attention. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law tracks restrictive protest laws introduced and enacted since 2017 as well as state domestic terrorism laws that pose potential threats to protest and advocacy. Protect the Protest, a taskforce of nonprofit organizations, focuses on the threats emanating from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). InterAction’s Together Project has produced resources on financial access challenges that U.S. nonprofits working internationally face, particularly in relation to the prohibition against providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations.

Other domains of legislative and regulatory action, such as the regulation of surveillance technology or threats posed by political resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, are less systematically monitored. Some threats may only become apparent with time. Therefore, looking ahead, one important priority is for philanthropic foundations and nonprofits to closely monitor proposed legislation and legislative amendments—whether at the state or federal level—that could infringe on their operations or on the nonprofit sector as a whole. Monitoring legislative debates across fifty states is a resource-intensive task. Therefore, it is critical to establish coalitions to share responsibilities, exchange information, prioritize responses, and develop rights-based counterproposals. Rapid response grants that can be accessed quickly to counter a legislative threat or targeted attack and investigation are another essential part of the global toolkit that should be integrated into U.S. funders’ strategies. Importantly, legislative monitoring and coordination should begin now, before any specific threat materializes—and funding for advocacy should continue even after proposed restrictions are defeated, to ensure that antidemocratic actors do not revive them.

 Build Sectoral Solidarity

Around the world, civil society organizations have been most successful at fending off restrictions and harassment when they have acted in unison, rallying across issues and sectors to raise awareness and lobby politicians. Attacks on civil society rarely impact all organizations and activists in the same way. Antidemocratic actors first come after groups that they are most ideologically hostile to or that pose the greatest threat to their political and economic interests. They often purposefully try to “divide and rule,” lifting up some organizations and areas of civil society engagement while framing others as illegitimate or extremist. As a result, nonpolitical or welfare-oriented civil society organizations are incentivized to put their heads down and avoid state attention by sidestepping sensitive legal and political questions. Yet over time, attacks on civic freedoms usually start affecting a broader range of actors. Measures that originally targeted outspoken human rights defenders, for instance, end up stifling the activities of groups working on environmental conservation, social protection, and poverty alleviation.

As a result, it is critical that civil society organizations present a united front when one or more of them come under legislative, regulatory, or political attack, rather than viewing these challenges as confined to a single actor or issue set. An example from Uganda illustrates what such solidarity can look like in practice. In 2017, government attacks on the human rights organization ActionAid Uganda spurred a national outcry. A petition to unfreeze the organization’s bank accounts generated more than 17,000 signatures in less than two weeks. When the organization was scheduled to appear in court, 300 citizens and civil society leaders packed the courtroom and marched through Kampala to deliver the petition to the government. In the United States, there was a similar show of unity in 2017 when Congress threatened to cut federal funding for Islamic Relief Worldwide, based on unfounded allegations that the humanitarian assistance organization had ties to terrorist groups. A broad coalition of humanitarian aid organizations as well as the InterAction NGO network successfully rallied against the measure with remarkable speed. Christian, Jewish, and non-faith-based groups joined their Muslim counterparts in solidarity, recognizing that the proposed funding cut threatened the charity sector as a whole.

Reinforcing this form of sectoral solidarity should be an important priority. Like in many countries, the nonprofit sector in the United States is fragmented and diverse. Organizations are divided by issue area, and advocacy groups often are disconnected from those focused on charity work and service provision. Divisive issues such as the ongoing conflict in Gaza have created fissures. Moreover, even among advocacy organizations, few currently have the bandwidth to focus on the legal and political environment for civil society in addition to their core areas of work, be that elections, workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, or other topics. In the coming months, funders can support greater coordination and knowledge-sharing by resourcing cross-issue working groups, convenings, and resource platforms focused on threats to civic space in the United States. Existing civil society networks and infrastructure organizations like InterAction, Independent Sector, and the Council on Foundations can play an important role in these coalition-building efforts and help connect groups with experts that can provide guidance and advice (or with activists and organizations that have navigated closing civic space in other countries).

Importantly, such efforts should bring in civil society stakeholders beyond the narrow circle of prodemocracy and civil rights actors, including professional and business associations, labor unions, media outlets, community foundations, and religious organizations. Key goals should be to raise greater awareness of current and potential future threats and to foster a shared understanding that these challenges imperil civil society and civic freedoms, not just left-leaning and progressive organizations and activists.

Seek Out Nontraditional Allies

Experiences in other countries also underscore the importance of building alliances across ideologically polarized lines and beyond the nonprofit sector itself. Building trust with key institutional and political stakeholders is critical, even before concrete threats emerge. These relationships make it easier for organizations to share their messages and seek out support in a moment of crisis. Allies can include oversight institutions and law enforcement agencies as well as federal and state legislators from across the political spectrum. Partners are often easier to find in the political opposition, but defeating restrictive laws or countering politically motivated investigations usually requires winning over some members from the governing party.

In Brazil, for instance, the organization Pacto pela Democracia has played an important role in bringing together more than 200 civil society groups from across the ideological spectrum in order to defend civil society without reinforcing partisan divides. These efforts bore fruit in 2019, when the newly elected administration of Jair Bolsonaro proposed a measure that would have expanded the authority of the executive to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and observe the activities and actions of international bodies and non-governmental organizations in the country.” Pacto pela Democracia helped coordinate a concerted response: hundreds of organizations monitored the legislative debates and pressured members of the relevant parliamentary commission as well as government officials not to pass the measure, noting that Brazil already had a regulatory framework for the nonprofit sector. The measure was successfully defeated.

In Nigeria since 2013, civil society organizations have similarly forged creative alliances to fight restrictive draft bills, including proposed NGO legislation that would have established a regulatory commission with significant discretionary power to approve or deny civil society organizations’ registration. In response, Nigerian civil society groups mobilized the support of the media as well as popular artists who participated in events aimed at educating the public about the problematic bill. Moreover, civil society advocates quickly recognized that many politicians poorly understood the proposed legal framework and its implications. By submitting legal analyses, participating in public hearings, debating the merits of the bill on national media, and conducting personal outreach to legislators and their advisors, activists were able to convince several politicians to abandon their support for the restrictive legislation.

A first practical step that U.S. organizations can take—individually or as collectives—is to map out their current close partners and collaborators, their wider circle of sympathetic stakeholders, and a third circle of potential allies. Such a mapping may uncover both opportunities and gaps. As a second step, organizations can strategize how to engage those currently in the second and third circle on their work as well as the threats facing U.S. civil society more broadly. For instance, they can strengthen their relationships with the media by briefing journalists about their initiatives and inviting them to relevant events and convenings. In the current U.S. context, organizations should also prioritize building relationships on Capitol Hill to cultivate legislative champions that they can reach out to if necessary.

 Invest in Communications and Counternarratives

Antidemocratic actors typically try to stigmatize civil society organizations that they oppose by framing them as elitist, corrupt, threatening, and opposed to the national interest or “natural” social order. These smear campaigns seek to delegitimize their work in the eyes of the public and justify new restrictions on organizations’ activities. The consequences can be severe, as politicians’ public vilification makes organizations and their staff members vulnerable to threats, extralegal harassment, and violence by radicalized citizens and nonstate actors. Civil society groups in these contexts face a dual challenge: combating government smear campaigns and targeted disinformation about themselves and their work while also conveying to the public that these attacks are part of a larger assault on democracy and civil society.

 Across various countries, civil society organizations have had some success fighting back against stigmatizing narratives by emphasizing their own values and principles and the tangible impact they have on citizens’ lives. Rather than engaging with politicians’ misleading narratives or appealing to abstract human rights standards and democratic ideals, they have been most impactful when they have focused on clearly communicating what they do and why it matters. In both Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, for instance, nongovernmental organizations lobbied parliamentarians by drawing attention to nongovernmental organizations’ important role for service delivery and job creation. In Nigeria, national associations representing the nonprofit sector have similarly emphasized that a clampdown on civil society would harm the country’s social and economic conditions, while also highlighting the economic contributions of the sector.

Drawing on these lessons, U.S. civil society organizations should consider how they could strengthen the public story they tell about themselves, their work, and the sector as a whole. They should familiarize themselves with existing best practices on countering smear campaigns and consider the best framing to use when engaging different audiences. When building broad coalitions across civil society, for example, speaking about threats to civic space makes sense. It makes clear that what is at stake are not particular policy positions but the core freedoms that apply to citizens and groups across the political spectrum. Yet the same framing may be too abstract to mobilize broad-based public support. To develop shared overarching messages, funders may consider commissioning research—ahead of their time of need—on existing public and media narratives surrounding civic space challenges and on the resonance of different framing strategies.

 Cultivate Strong Constituencies

Finally, civil society organizations should also take steps to bolster their constituencies. Across different countries, organizations with strong local roots have often been best positioned to weather attacks. They have been able to tap into their networks to generate grassroots funding when faced with new financial restrictions and mobilize public support when fighting politically motivated attacks or investigations, as in the case of ActionAid in Uganda. It is also more difficult for politicians to discredit, marginalize, and dismiss civil society groups as elitist, extremist, or as foreign agents if they have a documented base of support.

Of course, not all civil society organizations are well-positioned to cultivate a membership base or bottom-up participation. Some view movement-building as a core part of their mission; others are highly specialized legal and political advocacy groups that do not have the capacity to engage in grassroots organizing. Moreover, having a local support base is no panacea, especially in highly repressive environments. Take the example of Egypt: following the 2013 military coup, the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi successfully cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood despite its vast grassroots support. In fact, it was the group’s widespread popularity and local rootedness that made it threatening to the government. In a politically and geographically polarized society like the United States, politicians may also be less sensitive to public outrage if it is seen as coming from the “other camp” and does not impact legislators’ own electoral prospects.

Keeping these caveats in mind, organizations may want to consider what building a constituency that would come to their aid looks like for them and their mandate. For some groups, it may consist of doubling down on coalition-building and grassroots outreach; investing in regular public communications about their work; and engaging citizens in public actions like marches, public gatherings, fundraising, or canvassing campaigns. For others, it may consist of building stronger alliances with partner nonprofits, funders, and institutional allies or cultivating ties with powerful legislators across parties to ensure that others in the field know of and trust their work and expertise.

In sum, international experiences with closing civic space highlight a range of strategies that civil society organizations can take to mitigate and respond to threats, individually or collectively. In the current U.S. context, it may be tempting for organizations and funders to wait until the situation gets worse, particularly as there are always other pressing issues that require attention. Yet international lessons underscore that early action and strategic foresight are critical. Ensuring organizational risk preparedness, building coalitions, and cultivating political allies takes time. Taking action now will ensure that the sector is prepared, rather than fragmenting into thematic and political silos as threats accelerate.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.