Third sector must now become two

Third sector must now become two
Laurence Demarco
Regeneration & Renewal

The debate about whether authentic voluntary organisations should be separated from those that concentrate on delivering public services has recently resurfaced in the press. Reference was made to a major 1993 research study, Voluntary Action, which raised this issue forcibly more than a decade ago.

This study, written by Barry Knight, from social policy think-tank Centris, didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time, so I kept it on the shelf and I’ve just spent a rewarding hour revisiting it.

The study asks: should we differentiate between what are effectively social enterprises, sub-contracted to deliver services for public bodies, and genuinely voluntary and independent organisations which pursue their own agendas? Knight concludes that organisations need to choose. Those entering into new contracting arrangements can no longer think of themselves as sufficiently independent to warrant the term ‘voluntary’ he says. They can call themselves the Third Sector and be an important partner of the state in service delivery. But authentic voluntary bodies are those that remain independent, will eschew contracting, and stay unfettered to be ‘democracy seekers’ in ways of their own choosing, says Knight.

He does not say one path is better than another – both have their place – but he feels that to group them together in the term voluntary sector is no longer helpful. Knight starts from the perspective of the importance of voluntary action in a free and democratic society, defining it as ‘a form of energy, stemming from free will, having a moral purpose, and undertaken in a spirit of independence.’

Outlining the characteristics of what he sees as authentic voluntary organisations, he says: ‘They travel light – avoid bureaucracy, service delivery, the management of resources, and staff. They will be flexible, high in energy, output, and motion. Their overriding aim will be effectiveness and not efficiency, and they will measure this on what changes that they can bring in the policies and practices of others. The organisations will inter-link and could form a movement based on the principle of social solidarity.’

A key difference which emerges is that third sector service delivery organisations are part of the social order and should be funded by the state. Truly independent voluntary organisations challenge the social order and need to be resourced by citizens.

– Laurence Demarco is director of Senscot. Email: