Menu Close

Poland – Country Chapter


The end of the partnership model? Collaboration between non-governmental organizations and local governments

Country chapter

The end of the partnership model?

Collaboration between non-governmental organizations and local governments in Poland
Sites where interviews were conducted

Civil society in Poland

According to a study conducted by the Klon/Jawor Association, in 2018 there were 143,000 registered organizations (associations and foundations) in Poland. Klon/Jawor estimates that about 65% of these NGOs are active (approximately 80,000 organizations, excluding voluntary fire brigades).

The main field of non-governmental activity is to supplement the services provided by the state: “NGOs mainly deal with issues where the Polish state is ineffective,” argues Andrzej Bukowski, Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. The majority of NGOs promote physical culture and popularize sports, recreation, and tourism. This is followed by organizations that are active in the fields of culture and the arts as well as education (Table 1). Research shows that there are only a few organizations that deal with local development, social participation, and transparency.

Table 1. The focus of NGOs in Poland.​

Sport, tourism, etc.
Culture and arts
Social services, welfare
Local development
Source: Charycka, B., Gumkowska, M. (2018). The capacity of NGOs in Poland – Key
Facts. Warsaw: Klon/Jawor Association.

Unfortunately, as Agnieszka Bejma (2016) writes in her article on the development of civil society in Poland after World War II, “the dynamic development of civil society institutions is not accompanied by an increase in social involvement. Although voluntary activity is gaining greater popularity from year to year, still only a small percentage of Poles are involved in the activities of NGOs” (p. 217). On average, NGOs have 30 members, of whom only ten tend to be active. According to the Public Opinion Research Center (2018), two-thirds of Poles do not participate in civic organizations. In 2017, one in six adult Poles (16%) were involved in work for the benefit of either their community or a CSO.

Political and legal context

The development and growth of the non-governmental sector in Poland was shaped by the political transformation in 1989. After the communist government fell, Poland adopted several laws introducing decentralization and the legal basis for the operation of civil society organizations (CSOs). Poland’s local governmental structure was created in 1990. The reform assigned a number of tasks that were previously the prerogative of the central government to the municipalities and gave them relative autonomy in carrying them out. Local governments have several revenue-raising powers and can collect real estate as well as local taxes. Most interactions between public administrations and citizens take place at the local government level. According to Andrzej Bukowski, the 1990 Act on Municipal Government (OJ 1990, No. 16, item 95), was “one of the best results of the political breakthrough.”

Since then, Poland has been one of the most decentralized states in Europe where civil society is perceived as an indispensable element of democracy. Since 1989, CSOs in Poland are governed by the Act of 7 April 1989 on Associations (OJ 1989, No. 20, item 104, as amended). In the early 1990s, a large increase in the emergence of new organizations could be observed, given that Poland’s transition to a market democracy “released a lot of social energy. There was an explosion, an eruption of the third sector,” as Bukowski explains.

Another turning point in the formation of CSOs in Poland was the adoption of the Law on Public Benefit and Volunteerism by the Polish parliament (OJ 2003, No. 96, item 873, as amended) in 2003. “It has been called the constitution of the third sector,” Bukowski notes. It introduced the definition of an NGO into the legal system, provided the basis for financing NGOs, and formulated guidelines for the relations between non-profit organizations and the public authorities. In short, it “civilized the relations of the local government and public administration with non-governmental organizations,” as Tomasz Schimanek, an expert from the Academy for the Development of Philanthropy in Poland, says.

As a result of this law, the local government is obliged to launch formal procedures of collaboration with non-governmental organizations. For example, it is required to establish, at the request of such organizations, a consultative and advisory body of civic dialogue known as a Public Benefit Works Council. The Law on Public Benefit and Volunteerism “was promoted and supported by the Ministry […]. It contributed to the fact that many local governments began to open themselves to cooperation. It empowered NGOs and turned them into real partners for dialog,” explains Schimanek. Moreover, there are other regulations that affect the operations of NGOs. For example, the Act on Access to Public Information (OJ 2001, No. 111, item 1198), which ensures free access to and the re-use of public information held by the public authorities, is especially important for watchdog organizations.

However, despite the legal possibilities, much of the collaboration between local governments and NGOs is based almost exclusively on financial aspects, as Stanisław Mocek (2010) has shown. Only a minority of local governments and NGOs are engaged in non-financial cooperation, understood as “an area of civil dialog, within which non-governmental and public organizations exchange information and opinions or build advisory, initiative and consultation teams” (Bogacz-Wojtanowska, 2011, p. 25).

Collaborations are therefore limited to entrusting organizations with public tasks or awarding subsidies or grants. Consequently, this kind of cooperation reproduces the hierarchical relationship between the two types of entities and places CSOs in a dominated position (Mocek, 2010). The local government remains the ordering party, while CSOs play the role of contractor whose activities need to be controlled. This is a far cry from partnership understood as a model where both parties are equal partners in the decision-making process. Partnership should also involve a mutual understanding of the goals and responsibilities, a shared culture of cooperation based on trust and an understanding each other’s expectations and values (ibid.), all of which is lacking in a purely financial exchange.

At the same time, the collaboration between NGOs and local government is gaining in importance and is being promoted in many publications. Therefore, as Ewa Bogacz-Wojtanowska (2011) points out, many local governments declare that they promote partnership models of collaboration, while in reality this is not the case. Birkenhoff (2002, p. 98), quoted by Bogacz-Wojtanowska, calls such behavior “the rhetoric of partnership.” Currently, many municipalities have designated officials who are responsible for contacts with NGOs, and the local authorities maintain NGO registers, create social dialog committees, and so on. However, the question is to what extent such institutional activities produce collaborations in the manner of a true partnership.

Background of the study

In our study, we decided to focus on non-governmental organizations that support transparency, promote open data, and enhance social participation. We tried to identify and understand the best practices for non-financial collaboration between NGOs and local governments. In doing so, our aim was to analyze the most important challenges and preconditions for the implementation of successful cooperation. We also asked our interviewees about the nature of their collaboration with the authorities. Is it democratic and based on the principles of partnership? Does it empower citizens or simply serve to legitimize those in power?

During our research, we carried out 21 in-depth interviews with three different groups of people: experts (2 interviews), representatives of non-governmental organizations (14 interviews) and local government officials (5 interviews) in different cities across Poland (Figure

1)who are involved in collaborations. We selected initiatives from cities with a population of more than 10,000 inhabitants. The capital city of Poland, Warsaw, was excluded from our study. We selected the respondents by means of purposive and snowball sampling. We contacted CSOs via national umbrella organizations such as the Urban Movements Congress. After the interviews, we asked the NGOs to suggest an official responsible for collaboration whom we might interview. Unfortunately, not every official agreed to be interviewed. Very quickly, we discovered that collaboration can take various forms and is not limited to clear-cut partnership relations. Based on our interviews, we assembled four case studies that demonstrate the patterns of collaboration between local government and NGOs. First,

NGOs can decide to work for the municipality and collaborate with the local government from the inside. This is the case in the city of Dąbrowa Górnicza (Case Study 1), where representatives of the local urban movement, the Dąbrowska Initiative, ran for jobs in the municipality. Members of the association joined the mayor’s office as officials in charge of civil society matters (Piotr Drygała) and collaboration with NGOs (Magdalena Mike). Eventually, the founder of the association also became the city’s mayor.

Secondly, NGOs can form a political opposition and try to collaborate with the local government as political actors (Case Study 2). In Gorzów Wielkopolski, the People for the City movement won the elections in 2014. Currently, its representatives, among them Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz, act as opposition politicians in the city council. This political involvement has led to successful collaborations, for example with the Department of Social Consultations and Revitalization of the city of Gorzów Wielkopolski. However, not every instance of collaboration proceeds in a conflict-free manner. NGOs may be perceived as political competition, and the municipality may thus look at them through the prism of politics. Unsuccessful joint projects with the local administration may also lead an organization to move its activities elsewhere (Case Study 3). After several failed collaborations, the Fix Your City Foundation and the Sustainable Development Workshop decided to implement their ideas outside their municipality of origin.

Finally, there is also the question as to what counts as collaboration. Watchdog and whistleblower organizations do not formally collaborate with local governments (Case Study 4). They perceive themselves as organizations that are independent, and which can therefore monitor the local authorities‘ activities. However, they do take part in meetings, provide advice, and influence local governments in other ways. They effect change and exert pressure on local authorities. This perspective corresponds with the observations of Donatella Della Porta (2006), a researcher of social movements: “While the capacity of social movements for the realization of their general aims has been considered low, they are seen as more effective in the importation of new issues into public debate, or thematization” (p. 232). Sylwia Kowalska, a member of the Time for Citizens movement from Toruń, agrees: “In my opinion, the language we used and the issues we pointed out began to be mentioned more often by the local authorities. This can be considered a success. If you talk about something and then it happens or is implemented, you can be happy about it, because it represents a real change.”

Table 2. Case studies.

The end of the partnership model?

What, then, makes the partnership model difficult to implement in Poland? According to the majority of respondents, this problem may be related to the specific political culture in Poland. “Political culture determines the totality of values, norms, and patterns of behavior fixed in consciousness of subjects taking part in political actions” (Dutkiewicz, 2013, p. 62). The political culture of Polish society influences the shape of collaboration between local governments and NGOs. According to Pawel Kubicki (2011), most Polish cities are deeply rooted in their 19th century heritage; in cities, “the patterns of quasi-noble (pathologically understood as ‘golden liberty’) and peasant culture (a lack of understanding for values broader than one’s own family and home) persisted. As a result, cities were perceived in terms of the sum of private property, rather than the common good” (p. 224).

During our interviews, the NGO representatives thus frequently mention that local authorities treat the municipality “as their own kingdom” and do not want to share their tasks with any other entities. Alina Czyżewska, an activist from the Citizen Network Watchdog Poland and the People for the City movement from Gorzów Wielkopolski, say this outright: “The mayor often follows a feudal line of thinking: that the inhabitants are his inhabitants, that this is his commune, his municipality, his village, and he is the king who neither has to confess to anyone nor explain anything to anyone.” This opinion is shared by both Kamil Nowak from the To Know More Foundation from Kędzierzyn-Koźle, and Krzysztof Kowalik and Krzysztof Jakubowski, representatives of the Freedom Foundation from Lublin (Case Study 4). The latter notes that “power in Poland is treated as ‘being the king.’ It is not about public service but about being a king – therefore this power cannot be shared.” The situation can change if the mayor does not have a majority in the city council, when NGOs form a political movement with its own councilors (Case Study 2), or when NGO representatives decide to work for the municipality and try to effect change from the inside (Case Study 1)

At the same time, CSOs draw attention to overly complicated procedures at the level of the municipality, which they often associate with attempts to restrict their freedom of action. On account of this bureaucracy, it is often difficult to introduce changes and to offer solutions. According to Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs from the Civic City Lubartów, “every change is met with great reluctance by officials. Because why do something new? You would have to put in work, change something, show some initiative, and you don’t want to do that” (Case Study 4). Such complex formalities also affect the time it takes to process projects. Often, CSOs demand that solutions be implemented very quickly, but this is not possible within the existing legal framework (Case Study 1).

As the respondents note, Polish politics is characterized by “tribal wars.” This term is used by both Kowalik and Jakubowski, as well as by Hubert Barański, president of the Normal City – Phenomenon Foundation from Łódź. Barański summarizes this thinking as follows: “If someone criticizes us, it means that he is our enemy. The local government sees no other option. Consequently, it does not want to cooperate with organizations that have some other proposals or different visions.” Likewise, Jędrzej Włodarczyk from Better Gdańsk argues that “in Poland, there is no culture of cooperation between the various camps, the opposition and the authorities – groups with different views.”

Local governments in Poland are divided between the ruling party and an opposition, and the quality of collaboration does not differ, no matter if the ruling party is the Civic Platform, Law and Justice or any other party. Kalina Michocka, a representative from the Kalisz Urban Initiative, notes that “political affiliations at the level of medium-sized cities are not important […] it doesn’t really matter who belongs to which party.” The quality of collaboration can be good with both of the major parties, regardless of whether activists agree with their national programs or not. Kowalska, who calls herself a leftist, says that on a local level, decisions are independent of political views. In fact, it is sometimes easier for her to get along with Law and Justice. For her, “this was bizarre because I am clearly against what Law and Justice does at the national level – I went to Warsaw for the protests. According to the logic of these “tribal wars,” NGOs that criticize the local authorities may be seen as political competitors. As Bogacz- Wojtanowska (2011) writes, smaller towns are particularly prone to this problem because the number of activists is limited, and local politicians are also recruited from NGOs. Local authorities fear that the NGOs will take power and thus put a stop to collaborations (Case Study 3). This tends to happen if an organization presents strong opinions and criticizes the local authorities. There are other NGOs, however, that use more gentle language and do not enter into disputes with the local authorities. As Barański explains, “there are also NGOs that are somehow ‘polite’, such as tourist and sports organizations. They do not argue with the authorities in any way, they do not criticize it, but take money because doing so is more convenient.” Sometimes, this “gentle” way of collaboration is the only possible option. Mirosław Arczak, a local councilor in Olsztyn and a member of Common Olsztyn, says that some NGOs “have switched to such ‘safe’ activities, which are not aimed at confrontation with the authorities. Because there will always be a subsidy, and the authorities will not be difficult.”

The possibilities of change

Based on the comments of our respondents, implementing effective collaboration requires a change in attitude on the part of officials and the local authorities. They should be open to dialog, accessible and flexible. Magdalena Mike and Jakub Leszczyński underline the importance of accessibility (Case Study 1). According to Mike, collaboration in Dąbrowa Górnicza has been possible because officials are working outside standard business hours. Similarly, Krzysztof Ślebioda from the Sustainable Development Workshop and Pawel Wyszomirski from the Fix Your City Foundation (Case Study 2) underline that the best partner is an open partner.

Changing the political culture requires bringing new people into local government, but experience on the part of officials is also important. In the Department of NGOs and Civic Activity of Dąbrowa Górnicza, the officials have experience working in the non- governmental sector (Case Study 1). Likewise, Piotr Choroś, Director of the Department of Social Participation in Lublin, notes that “the quality of cooperation may be much higher in local governments where the leadership, for example the chairpersons of councils, mayors or deputy mayors, have experience in the non-governmental sector. In local governments where those in power have no experience of working in the third sector and are unfamiliar with the details of this work, there are more barriers to cooperation.”

On the other hand, NGOs should also be open to dialog and be prepared to compromise and collaborate with local government, as Bejnar- Bejnarowicz emphasizes (Case Study 3). Włodarczyk admits that “one has to realize that an NGO does not lose anything in this type of cooperation – it is just a pragmatic move, a tool to implement a part of the program. If the authorities are willing to enter into some kind of conversation, and are ready to support the demands, they must be allowed to do so.” In other words, collaboration allows CSOs to achieve greater successes and to implement their ideas. Kowalska agrees that “it is necessary to consider whether it is actually always good to be in opposition. Perhaps it is better to cooperate in some way, for example by designating a few common points that can be implemented.”

What will the future bring?

However, it is also important to look beyond the local level and to consider the national context. As Tomasz Schimanek notes, the political context has played a bigger and bigger role since 2016. “Until that time, in the local context, party membership was of little importance. People voted for a candidate regardless of what party he or she belonged to. The same candidates ran for different parties and people voted for them anyway.” According to Schimanek, now “that Law and Justice rules, you can see locally that money is transferred to NGOs working in areas related to tradition, family and so on, and that support for tolerance, the environment and the defense of minority rights is limited.” CSOs should thus be ready to cooperate not only with the local government, but also with other (local) NGOs. One of the umbrella associations that support the development of civil society is the Urban Movement Congress, which gathers NGOs dealing with urban policy from all over Poland. In addition, the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland also provides legal advice and training for NGOs. However, there are also other challenges on the horizon. The policy of the ruling party affects not only non-governmental organizations but also local governments. The words of Andrzej Bukowski sum up the current situation in Poland: “At the moment, we are talking about cooperation between local governments and non-governmental organizations, and at the same time the process of limiting the power of local government in Poland is taking place […]. We can talk about cooperation between local governments and non-governmental organizations, but if there is no local government, there will be no cooperation.”


Act of 24 April 2003 on Public Benefit Organizations and Voluntarism (OJ 2003, No. 96, item 873, with further amendments). Act of 6 September 2001 on Access to Public Information (OJ 2001, No. 111, item 1198).

Act of 7 April 1989 on Associations (OJ 1989, No. 20, item 104, with further amendments). Act of 8 March 1990 on Municipal Government (OJ 1990, No. 16, item 95).

Bejma, A. (2016). The development of civil society in Poland after World War II. [In:] Pająk-Patkowska, B., Rachwał, M. (eds.). Hungary and Poland in Times of Political Transition. Selected Issues, pp. 209-221. Poznań: Faculty of Political Science and Journalism, Adam Mickiewicz University.

Bogacz-Wojtanowska, E. (2011). Współdziałanie organizacji pozarządowych i publicznych [Cooperation of non-governmental and public organizations]. Cracow: Institute of Public Affairs, Jagiellonian University.

Boguszewski, R. (2018). Aktywność Polaków w organizacjach obywatelskich [Activity of Poles in civic organizations]. Warsaw: Public Opinion Research Center.

Charycka, B., Gumkowska, M. (2018). The capacity of NGOs in Poland – Key Facts. Warsaw: Klon/Jawor Association.

Della Porta, D., Diani, M. (2006). Social movements. An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell publishing. Dutkiewicz, G. (2013). Political culture of the Polish society versus civic education. Colloquium nr 3, pp. 61-70. Kubicki, P. (2011). Nowi mieszczanie – nowi aktorzy na miejskiej scenie. Przegląd Socjologiczny 11 (60), pp. 203-227.

Mocek, S. (2010). Raport cząstkowy: analiza diagnostyczno-poznawcza dobrych praktyk współpracy między administracją publiczną i organizacjami pozarządowymi (z wykorzystaniem analizy jakościowej na małej próbie badawczej) [Diagnostic and cognitive analysis of good practices of cooperation between public administration and non-governmental organizations]. Warsaw: Forum for the Animation of Rural Areas.

List of respondents

Case study 1: Working for local government

Magdalena Mike Responsible for collaboration with NGOs in the Dąbrowa Górnicza mayor’s office

Piotr Drygała Responsible for civil society matters in the Dąbrowa Górnicza mayor’s office

Jakub Leszczyński Head of the Dąbrowska Initiative

Case study 2: Providing expert knowledge from outside local government

Krzysztof Ślebioda | Head of the Sustainable Development Workshop, Toruń Sylwia

Kowalska | Head of the Time for Residents association, Toruń Paweł Wyszomirski | Head of the Fix Your City Foundation, Katowice

Agnieszka Lis Responsible for collaboration with NGOs in the Katowice mayor’s office [written response]

Case study 3: Influencing local government as a watchdog

Kamil Nowak Head of To Know More, Kędzierzyn Koźle

Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs Heads of Civic City, Lubartów

Krzysztof Kowalik and Krzysztof Jakubowski Heads of the Freedom Foundation, Lublin

Piotr Choroś Director of the Social Participation Office, Lublin municipality

Kalina Michocka Kalisz City Initiative

Case study 4: NGO as opposition in the city council

Alina Czyżewska Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, People for the City Gorzów

Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz Head of People for the City, local councilor in Gorzów, Urban Movements Congress

Anna Bonus Mackiewicz Director of the Department of Social Consultations and Revitalization, Gorzów Wielkopolski municipality

Activists active on the local level

Hubert Barański Head of Normal City – Phenomenon, Łódź

Mirosław Arczak Head of Common Olsztyn, local councilor in Olsztyn

Jędrzej Włodarczyk Head of Better Gdańsk

Paweł Harlender OSOM Gliwice


Tomasz Schimanek Expert from the Academy for the Development of Philanthropy in Poland

Andrzej Bukowski Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków