Siirry sisältöön
Aaro Harju & Sanna Ryynänen
Julkaistu 13.11.2020

Finnish civil society

Civil society is formed of citizens’ voluntary activities for the common good.

In civil society, citizens act voluntarily to organize activities and services for themselves and for others. The participants decide themselves what they want to do and how. Central for civil society is that activities are not targeted at oneself but for the common good. A key aspect of civic activities is commonality.

Civil society is considered to be one of the three main sectors of society. The other two are the public sector run by the State, and the private sector consisting of private enterprises.

Earlier, civil society was seen to form the “third sector” of society. Nowadays, however, it is customary to use “third sector” to denote the organized activities of the civil society, and speak of “fourth sector” when referring to informal civic activities.

Finnish civil society consists of the following actors and operations:

Organizational activities

In Finland, the most central part of civic activities takes place in civic organizations. An association or an organization is defined as a group of people who have joined their forces to pursue a common goal, value or interest.


Foundations are organizations that collect and distribute money to common good. They give out grants and donations with which they support, for example, science, research, arts, and culture. They may also help maintain institutions, such as museums, schools, or hospitals. Some foundations may also produce services themselves; they are called functional foundations. Foundations do not, however, aim for financial gain.

Non-formal adult education

Non-formal adult education aims at giving everyone a chance for lifelong learning and versatile development. The costs for courses are kept at a reasonable level, and there are no entry level requirements concerning, for example, prior studies. The purpose is to improve active citizenship and the equality of citizens. Institutions to offer non-formal adult education include folk high schools, adult education centres, learning centres, summer universities, and sports training centres.

Religious organizations

Religious organizations in Finland have special national characteristics. The state and the church are officially separate. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church have their own law, the Church Code, and a legal right to collect parish taxes from the private members of the Church and community taxes from the private enterprises that are members of the Church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are the State churches in Finland.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are called State churches in Finland. For this reason their extensive parish work is not included in Finnish civil society, even though many of the parish operations, for example voluntary welfare work, are exactly the kind of activities which would be typical of civil society.

Other churches, such as the Pentecostal congregation, the Free Church, the Mormons, Jehovah ’s Witnesses, etc. are included in the sphere of civil society. Their activities are organized mainly as in associations. Similarly, civil society includes the operations of the various Christian organizations, such as children and youth organizations, missions, the sea farers ’mission, and the revivalist movements within the Church.

Trade union movement

Trade union activities are not considered a part of civil society in every country. In Finland, too, the categorization is controversial, because the trade union movement has a central role in shaping Finnish legislation. The movement is also involved in the collective labour agreements and the incomes policy negotiations with the employers ’organizations and the government. These agreements regulate the wages, taxes and the social security. Thus the trade union movement has a unique position among the actors of the civil society.

Despite this, the movement can be seen as a part of civil society, since it is constituted of the trade unions with their local divisions and members. Their organizational structure is similar to that of other Finnish associations. They, like other organizations, have members and voluntary activities.

Political parties

Political parties are excluded from the definition of civil society in many countries. This would obviously be justifiable in the Finnish context as well, considering the special position political parties hold in the parliamentary system. The parties field candidates in elections and form the government, as well as appoint their representatives for positions of trust on the municipal and the national level.

Parties do not have a monopoly on putting up candidates in elections.

Parties do not, however, have a monopoly on putting up candidates. According to the Finnish legislation, all constituency associations set up by citizens can put up candidates in the municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections. People who are not members of any party can be, and are, nominated to positions of trust.

Although the parties have registers on the national level, their local and provincial divisions have the same organizational structure as other associations. Their operations are also regulated by the Associations Act. On these grounds political parties can be included in civil society. They represent its political dimension.

Small-scale cooperation

In many countries cooperative systems and mutual corporations are included within the scope of civil society. In Finland the delineation is stricter. The operations of large-scale cooperative systems and mutual corporations are in practice identical to those of limited companies. They are commercial businesses, in which the traditional values of cooperation are not apparent, despite the customer ownership. Thus, the scope of civil society includes only such small-scale co-operative systems which are not primarily profit-making enterprises and in whose activities the characteristics of civil society are visible.

Informal civic activities

In addition to the registered associations, there are plenty of active unregistered groups, clubs and societies, and other alliances of people. These are spontaneous alliances of citizens.

Article is based on texts “A description and the contents of civil society” and “The scope of present day civil society” by Aaro Harju, published earlier on this web site.