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Social cooperation, the italian way to non profit enterprise - 1-

Maria Teresa COBELLI

08 / 1993


Although in Italy the climate of opinion was largely in favour of the public model of social services delivery until a few years ago, the 1980s saw the considerable diffusion of private initiatives with solidarist aims, both in traditional sectors (welfare, health, education, employment policies)and other sectors such as environmental protection, public safety and the arts.

The forms that these private initiatives have taken are well known: organized voluntary work, social cooperation, social associationism, trusts. These organizations have often proved able to satisfy collective needs and to activate local communities. They constitute that broad area which goes under various names (third system, third sector, private social sector)and operate according to a logic different from those of the state and of the traditional firm.

Apart from the wide spread diffusion of these initiatives, however, their truly novel feature is the increased organizational and innovative capacity, so that they are now able to overcome those defects of amateurism and paternalism that they have long been rightly criticised for.

It is above all the ability to expand their human and material resources that seems to be the greatest advantage of these organizations in the current situation of increasing qualitative and quantitative needs, accompanied by a fiscal crisis which necessitates cut-backs in social spending.

One of the reasons for the crisis of the italian welfare state, caught as it is between the growth of new demands and curbs of public spending, can therefore be solved by utilizing solidarist initiatives. By organizing their human resources (paid or voluntary)in the best way possible and by responsibilizing individuals and civil society, they can help to reduce public spending and to improve the quality of the social services.


Among the forms of non-profit making organization that become most widespread in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s, certainly ofconsiderable importance was the social solidarity cooperative (cooperativa di solidarietà sociale). Born with the mainstream of Catholic-inspired cooperation in the second half of the 1970s, social solidarity cooperatives continued to develop and expand during the 1980s and are now an important component of italian social services delivery. At present, approximately 1,200 cooperatives belong to Federsolidarietà (the national federation of representation, protection and coordination)and more than 30,000 people work for them on a paid or voluntary basis.

The social solidarity cooperatives address a wide range of users: minors and young people, the handicapped, drug addicts, elderly people, the mentally ill, marginalized adults (ex-prisoners, immigrants, the long-term unenmployed, alchoolics).Forms of intervention are also extremely varied: communities, day services, home help, social centres, etc.Various cooperatives organize work activities aimed to integrate disadvantaged subjects stably into the cooperative or to equip them with skills that can be sold on the labour market: artisans workshops, farms, commercial activities, services to towns or to individuals.

Apart from these features, it is useful to describe the principal reason for the development of the social solidarity cooperative. There are those who argue that a major factor was the freeze imposed on hirings in the public sector during the 1980s which could only be circumvented through decentralised forms of services.

Ther is, however, reasons to believe that the spread of forms of self-organization within local communities was the outcome of a maturation process; that is, the growing awareness among small groups scattered across Italy that it was necessary to try a new and modern approach in order to provide concrete and comprehensive solidarity to those in need.

The social cooperative has proved to be a viable response to the need to create structures wich are sufficiently stable and well organized, but also flexible and efficient, to deliver new forms of social intervention. This formula has also proved particularly suited to those wishing to devote their skills and time to those in need within organizations guaranteeing the democratic and responsible treatment of the subjects concerned.

All these features are summed up in the social solidarity cooperative. The cooperative movement, in fact, has always pursued the ultimate goal (although it is one that has sometimes been forgotten)of constructing a more equitable society by combining entrepreneurialism with solidarity, democratic participation with organizational efficiency.

Palabras claves

política social, solidaridad, cooperativa, política de salud, empresa

, Italia


First part of a speech pronounced in Barcelona, may 1993, during the meeting "Well being in Europe by strengthening the third sector. (See part 2)


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