Engaging for the Common Good in Italy

Studying the Effects of Public Funding of Buddhist Organisations on Initiating Civic Engagement Activities

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation with an amount of 299,000 Swiss francs

Project duration: 4 years

Project management: Prof. Dr. Martin Baumann

Project PhD candidate: Tiziano Bielli, MA


The presence of Buddhist practitioners in Italy is increasingly relevant and the most important Italian Buddhist organisations recently reached specific agreements with the Italian State which allow them to receive public funding. Our research project aims to understand how these public funds affect the civic engagement of Buddhist organisations and communities in Italy. In addition to this, it will compare the Italian situation with the Swiss context where such forms of public funding are not present.

Content and purpose

Over the last two decades, in Italy the number of Buddhists has grown rapidly from some 74,000 in 2001 to some 325,000 people according to recent estimates. In this context, in 2012 and 2016 the two most prominent Italian Buddhist organisations – the Italian Buddhist Union and the Italian Buddhist Institute Sōka Gakkai – signed two agreements with the State which enable them to receive public funding by means of the 'otto-per-mille' regulation, i.e. a compulsory 0.8 per cent of the annual personal income tax. Thanks to these agreements, the two Italian Buddhist organisations have received considerable amounts of tax money which has to a large extent been spent on civic engagement activities. Advertisements by the Italian Buddhist Union reach out to the general public to gain more taxpayers diverting the ‘otto-per-mille’ funds to the Buddhist Union and its engaged activities.
Our research project studies the changes in Buddhist civic engagement caused by the inflow of public funding as well as the religious and other motivations for civic engagement of Buddhist practitioners and organisations in Italy. A comparative study on the civic engagement of Buddhist groups in Switzerland where no such public funding exists strives to study the impact of different governance scheme of religious minorities on civic engagement activities. In theoretical terms, the project combines the governance concept by Veit Bader (2007, 2009) with conceptual approaches on civic engagement elaborated by Richard P. Adler & Judy Goggin (2005) and Fred Kniss & Paul D. Numrich (2007). The project employs qualitative methods  to study past and current civic engagement activities by means of expert interviews, ethnographic observations, and content analysis of media reports, Buddhist programs, websites, and grey literature.


Scientific and social context

Until now, the civic engagement of Buddhist organisations in Italy has not been subject to a scientific study and as such the project aims to fill this gap. In addition, it intends to provide a nuanced image of the Italian religious and civic landscape. As various models for public funding of religious communities are in practice all over Europe, the study will contribute empirical data and reflections for further comparative work on regimes of religion-state relationships in Europe. By analysing and detailing the effects of the otto-per-mille regulation, the project results will also be relevant for decision makers when it comes to reflecting on the impacts of decisions to be made in this field. In this regard, this research will provide people in civil society associations, public authorities, political parties, and common citizens with the tools necessary to read and interpret the civic contributions implemented by a specific religious minority and Buddhist organisations in particular.