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, organisations relevant to cultural policy are in most cases concerned either with advocacy or with organising leisure activities.
The Swedish voluntary sector, and the approaches to it taken in government policy, has long been dominated by organisations sharing several organisational characteristics:
- they have equal membership open to everyone who wants to join;
- they have hierarchic 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 organisation’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 organisations are often described as popular movement organisations (folkrörelseorganisationer). This way of organising 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 organisation in the field of cultural amateur activities. While they are government-funded, non-profit membership-based organisations, their members are federations of voluntary organisations of the popular movement type. Their function is to offer popular education activities to the members of these organisations, as well as to the general public. Since 1991, their national government funding 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 organised by regional governments), the Interest Organisation of Popular Movement Folk High Schools (representing the folk high schools organised by voluntary organisations), and the Swedish National Federation of Study Associations (Folkbildningsförbundet, representing the study associations). Most of the established voluntary organisations of the country are involved in these structures, generally as members of study associations. While study associations are highly professionalised organisations with large administrations, they also make use of a large number of volunteers at the most practical levels of their work.
Another exception from the typical case is the registered religious denominations. The largest of these is the Church of Sweden, with 6.4 million members. When analysing 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. Before 2000 it was, on the other hand, a public body. The size of the voluntary sector can thus be said to have increased significantly, without any major change in the habits of the population.
However, studies indicate that the voluntary sector in Sweden is increasingly organised in non-profit associations with a more limited number of members and a large number of non-member supporters and volunteers. It is possible that the younger generation is not, as has been suggested, sceptical towards the voluntary organisation as a form, but simply takes a more practical approach to it, placing the activity before the organisational form. It could also be that organisations of the old model are decreasing in importance and that cultural activities are increasingly organised in new ways. One should, however, not assume that the new modes of organisation are entirely different from the old ones. New movements and forms of culture are often cooperating with older organisations, even when they themselves are more informally organised. The organisational forms of new cultural expressions appear to still be an open issue.