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Non-profit organizations like Greenpeace or the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) play a key role when it comes to protecting the environment. But is the legitimacy of the actions of similar organizations compromised by their political institutionalisation? Read on to find the answer!


Anke Wonneberger explores this topic in the chapter “Environmental non-profit organisations in public discourses: challenges and opportunities of political institutionalisation” that she wrote for the recently published book “Strategic Communication for Non-Profit Organisations”.


About the research method

The data were collected through manual quantitative content analysis of the national media coverage on the Dutch Energy Agreement of 2013. Five Dutch national newspapers were included – Het Financieele Dagblad, Trouw, NRC Handelsblad, De Volkskrant and De Telegraaf. A total of 306 newspaper articles that included the words “energy agreement” were selected. The sample period was from October 2011 to November 2013. It encompassed the preparations prior to the negotiations, the entire period of the actual negotiations, and the successive debate two months after the announcement of the agreement.


The Dutch Energy Agreement of 2013

The idea behind the energy agreement was to stimulate sustainable development in the Netherlands regarding energy production, supply, and consumption. More than 40 organizations including governmental bodies, industry and employer associations, labour unions, and nature conservation and environmental organizations took part in the negotiations. These relevant societal stakeholders were involved in the early stages of political decision making to a reach central agreement that guides the following policy processes.


The paradox of political institutionalisation and legitimacy

Environmental non-profit organisations (ENPOs) are getting institutionalised by participating in institutionalised decision making processes. This could be a double-edged sword. On one hand it creates opportunities for political action and influence and helps organizations to reach their goals. But it also creates conflicts for ENPOs because the stronger institutional involvement challenges their legitimacy. Legitimacy is usually gained as organizations act as an opposition and critic of the political establishment by representing the interests of minority groups or those with less or no political power.


Discursive position

The concept of discursive opportunity structures is used to examine the importance of public attention for the success of social movements. It is defined as the characteristics of the public discourse that are decisive for the message’s chances to spread in the public sphere. Mass media is seen as the most important platform for non-profit organizations to gain public legitimacy. There are two aspects that define the oppositional position of ENPOs in the public discourse. These are discursive relations to other institutionalised and non-institutionalised actors and the discreteness of discursive contributions in the form of frames compared to frames employed by other actor groups.


What are the findings?

The main finding of the study was that institutionalisation introduces an opportunity as well as a threat to the public legitimacy of movement organizations. Institutionalisation impacted patterns of actor references but no substantial differences in the use of frames were found. Political actors and key stakeholders such as citizens were addressed less often by institutionalised ENPOs while the organizations referred more often to negotiation partners, and those from industry. Industry actors referred more often to ENPOs indicating that such coordination networks with industry can help to strengthen the position of ENPOs in public debates.

In regards to framing the participating actor groups differed in their use of frames. All actor types who participated were less critical compared to not participating actors. They also mentioned financial aspects of the agreement less often. At the same time, negotiating actors focused more on technical aspects of energy production, supply, and consumption as well as on the process of the negotiations. Nevertheless, ENPOs contributed to the discussion with an environmental movement frame that was used to a lesser extent by the other participating actors.


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Want to read the whole chapter and get acquainted with the book? “Strategic Communication for Non-Profit Organisations” is available on 10% discount (using code CFC28275CB on checkout): or on Amazon: