Associations of citizens have historically played an important role in Swedish society and politics, often in close cooperation with the state. However, in many areas this role is mostly limited to acting as advocacy groups, leaving welfare arrangements to the state. Leisure activities are one of the exceptions to this rule. Consequently, organizations relevant to cultural policy are in most cases concerned either with advocacy or with organizing leisure activities. On the advocacy side, organizations representing the professionals of the culture sector and the various art forms play a significant role by being consulted during the process of policy formation, as well as by being represented in committees and boards within the sector.
The Swedish voluntary sector, and the approaches to it taken in government policy, has long been dominated by organizations sharing several organizational characteristics:
- they have equal membership open to everyone who wants to join;
- they have a hierarchical democratic federal structure divided in regional districts that are, in turn, based on local clubs;
- they have a high number of individual members who form the basis of the organization’s internal democracy; typically cover the whole nation geographically, and only the nation;
- they, to a high degree, rely on voluntary work,
- the state contributes a significant portion of their income; and
- they are often closely integrated in government and are, for example, typically consulted by the government before new legislation is proposed to the parliament.
Such organizations are often described as popular movement organizations (folkrörelseorganisationer). This way of organizing is enforced by strong links to the nation-state, as well as to its regional authorities and municipalities.
A slightly different form than the typical Swedish NGO structure is the study association. These are more complex in structure. They are also the economically dominant form of organization in the field of cultural amateur activities. While they are government-funded, non-profit membership-based organizations, their members are federations of voluntary organizations of the popular movement type. Their function is to offer popular education activities to the members of these organizations, as well as to the general public. Since 1991, their national government funding – 4.2 billion SEK in 2020 – is distributed by the Swedish National Council of Adult Education (Folkbildningsrådet). The Council is a non-profit association with three official members: the National Association of Local and Regional Authorities (representing the large number of folk high schools organized by regional governments), the Interest Organization of Popular Movement Folk High Schools (representing the folk high schools organized by voluntary organizations), and the Swedish National Federation of Study Associations (Folkbildningsförbundet, representing the study associations). Most of the established voluntary organizations of the country are involved in these structures, generally as members of study associations.
Another exception from the typical case is the registered religious denominations. The largest of these is the Church of Sweden, with 5.7 million members. When analyzing trends in the Swedish voluntary sector, it is thus worth noting that the Church of Sweden was separated from the state in 2000. It is thus now a part of the voluntary sector. Even if one does not consider religious activities, as such, a part of the cultural sector, its activities still contain many aspects that could be characterized as arts and culture, e.g. church choirs, church music, and heritage preservation.
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