Taming the monster: can the third sector distinguish its unique contribution?

In response to a recent speech by Tony Nicholson, several weeks ago Associate Professor Helen Dickinson (@drhdickinson) argued that 'we need to be clear about the specific strengths and skills of the sector' in any discussion about its future and funding. In a followup post, Dr James Rees (@JamesRees_tsrc) from the Third Sector Research Centre examines why and in what ways third sector organisations offer something distinctive. This is the first of three blog posts from James which tackle this issue.


A quick glance through my email circulars, a skim through UK third sector trade press or some of the latest exhortations from the UK Cabinet Office amply confirms that the sector and its key actors and influencers could be seen as obsessed with the task of proving their impact, articulating their ‘added value’, and demonstrating they have met whatever outcomes are relevant to their particular field of work. This task has become ever more urgent in an era where third sector organisations (TSOs) are commissioned  by government in seemingly ever more competitive frameworks. With the greater use of ‘Payment by results’ systems like the UK Work Programme TSOs are increasingly having to demonstrate this to private sector providers as well as government.

But in this first of three short blogs I’d like to take a step back and consider a prior question: why and in what ways do we expect TSOs to offer something distinctive, and how can we create a public policy framework that best fosters and supports this offer.

In a recent blog on Power to Persuade Helen Dickinson said that “In order to contribute to a discussion about the future of the community welfare sector we need to be clear about the specific strengths and skills of the sector.” I wholeheartedly agree. This has become an area marked by increasingly opaque discussion and I would like to offer a few reflections of my own about how we can rectify this.

In short I think there is still much to learn from the more theoretical discussions at the heart of some rather long-running academic debates. Distilling some of the lessons from this literature could help us avoid continually reinventing the wheel.

I think this will add to the debate that was kicked off by Tony Nicholson. Tony’s speech shows that the concerns and fears in Australia – about independence and professionalization – are very similar to here in the UK. We have had an inquiry into threats to independence and pressure from campaign group NCIA for an end to the stifling influence of the state and market on voluntary and community organisations.

In a later post I will look at a range of recent examples of practice in the UK which are more practical and often innovative responses to the challenges of defining, measuring, and demonstrating impact. It may be that as so often in the past, practitioners and policymakers have much to learn from comparing experiences in the UK and Australia.

So why has the debate become so confused?

In my view recent years have seen something of a crisis of confidence that the sector has something distinctively different to contribute to society, and I would suggest two main reasons for that:

1. The idea of, and definition of the sector is in itself part of the problem.

 The third sector has of course famously been described as a loose and baggy monster and the huge diversity of organisations, certainly in the UK – sizes, types, legal formations and missions – is arguably part of what makes it a distinctive sector.

Yet it is the very contradictory-ness of these contrasting organisations – as well as uncertainty about the vast range of informally organised community activity that ‘fly under the radar’ that defy a neat definition. Things get even more difficult when one considers the dynamic nature of changes to the sector: for instance the creation of new third sector mutuals – where groups of public sector employees form new independent organisations by ‘spinning out’ from the public sector. David Billis and others have developed the idea of ‘hybridity’ to explain the seeming ubiquity of organisations that combine multiple characteristics associated with other sectors. Social enterprise is a good example – where the achievement of social value is combined with business approaches.

Yet some sector leaders claim to speak on behalf of the sector – and understandably stick to a fairly simple message about what it can offer. UK charity sector body ACEVO for example tends to stress the trust in which TSOs are held, their local knowledge and ‘reach’, their role in policy advocacy, and their capacity for innovation. However, as researcher Chris Damm aptly puts it: “there exists a relative paucity of independent evidence to back up these claims concerning the third sector’s added value”. This orthodoxy has been reinforced by similar messages coming from both the New Labour and 2010 Coalition governments.

In my view this gap between rhetoric and reality breeds scepticism that there is actually something distinctive about the sector. Some argue that social enterprise and social business is anathema to the ‘real’ values of the sector and the incursion of business values should be strongly resisted. There is considerable suspicion of the motives of those who say the sector is distinctive, particularly those who think it is a way to justify privatisation and fragmentation of public services.

2. The ‘sell out’ thesis.

A wide range of perhaps quite separate processes have contributed to the sense in which parts of (or even all of!) the sector have sold out, abandoned their roots, and sold their valued attributes down the river.

Tony’s speech perfectly encapsulated the narrative that initiatives and organisations in ‘the sector’ have entered a pact with the devil by contracting with the state and outlined the compromises they make to do so. Others point to mergers and enlargement, bureaucratisation and professionalization and the idea that the sector has undergone 'Tesco-ization’. This story could be (and likely has been) told a thousand times over.

This feeds back into the definitional problem just discussed: if the sector is splitting apart or elements of it are so very different from each other, surely there is little that positively unites such disparate organisations and there can be no hope of identifying a distinctive contribution?

For critics like the National Coalition for Independent Action, what really marks the sector out as distinctive is, in Colin Rochester’s phrase, its ‘independence of thought and action’, and its ability to challenge and hold government to account. Worries about the ability of TSOs to retain their independence have been a major preoccupation in the UK.

Does the sector need to make some decisions or deal explicitly with this contradiction? Perhaps, but arguably the key thing for all of us to recognise is that given the diversity of the sector it can’t expect to speak (or be spoken for) with one voice. When it does do so, Pete Alcock calls this strategic unity, the idea that the sector holds together in a certain way at a certain way to achieve certain outcomes (usually to gain resources!). We are perhaps experiencing a period of greater incoherence at present.

To my mind, there are parts of this huge diversity of organisations that are more professional than others, parts that are more independent, vocal and radical. That diversity is good for society but it doesn’t mean there aren’t certain characteristics that broadly unite them. Provocatively, Rob Macmillan has argued that we need to think just as carefully about why such claims about distinctiveness – by organisations and the sector itself – are made, and we need to ask why and whose interests they serve to advance.

There is another big reason for the cloudiness of the debate: doubts about the way the impact agenda has played out in the UK. Part two of this blog will tackle the thorny issue of documenting the value-add of the sector and its social impact.

Posted by Gemma Carey