Unity in Diversity: What is the future for the third sector?

Unity in Diversity: What is the future for the third sector?
The Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC)
June 2013

Executive summary

The Futures Dialogue was established by the TSRC in summer of 2012 and ran for eight months through to spring 2013. The aim was to use the findings from TSRC research to provide the basis for a dialogue on some of the key issues underpinning the future development of the third sector in England, focusing in particular upon how the sector would, and should, respond to emerging challenges. The dialogue took a number of forms including:

• publication of a series of five ‘Big Picture’ discussion papers from TSRC researchers outlining key findings and identifying issues for debate

• open invitation seminars in London where these findings were presented and discussed

• online ‘Question and Answer’ live discussion sessions hosted by Guardian Voluntary Sector Network

• online commentary and blogs on a dedicated Futures Dialogue website established by TSRC

• meetings of a ‘Sounding Board’ of leading sector experts from policy and practice to debate the issues and discuss the future challenges for the sector

• a TSRC national conference held at the British Library in April 2013 where these issues were debated further by a large open audience.

This report contains all the key elements of this process, including the ‘Big Picture’ ‘discussion papers’, analysis of the subsequent debate, reflections from the Sounding Board, and identifies key challenges for the future of the third sector.


Voluntary action and organisation has a long history in the UK, and it is important to see current hallenges in the context of a resilient and still growing third sector. In recent times, however, there have been significant shifts in policy towards the sector and reviews of its developing role. The changes in the economic and political environment have prompted further shifts in policy in the last five years, however; and it is in the light of these recent changes that this dialogue was initiated.

It is accepted that the term ‘third sector’ is a contested concept, and this was discussed within the dialogue. However, all participants embraced the inclusion of the broad range of organisations within the field, including social enterprises and mutuals, as well as small community groups. The Futures Dialogue has therefore continued to use the term third sector to describe this broader aggregation of organisations.

Discussion 1 – the worst of times?

Focused on the changing economic and political climate for the sector, drawing on research data on trends in organisational development and voluntary action. It identified these as a potential ‘unsettlement’ for the sector.

Discussion 2 – no longer a voluntary sector?

Focused on potential challenges to the voluntary ethos of the sector, drawing on research evidence on employment and volunteering within organisations. It questioned whether activity within organisations was being reshaped and whether too much was being asked of volunteers.

Discussion 3 – is the third sector so special? What is it worth?

Focused on the potential impact of ‘unsettlement’ on grass roots and community organisations, drawing on research on ‘below-the-radar’ organisations to explore the value of different parts of the sector and what made the sector distinctive. It also explored the question of how activity in the sector could be measured and valued.

Discussion 4 – is the third sector being overwhelmed by the state and the market?

Focused on the impact of public service delivery and market competition on third sector organisations,
drawing on research on public service reform and the role of social enterprises. It raised the question of whether these external forces were leading to ‘mission drift’ within organisations.

Discussion 5 – a strategic lead for the sector?

Focused on the overall structure of the sector, in particular the challenges to the development of a unified voice for such a diverse range of organisations and activities, drawing on research on the role of leadership within the sector. It explored the continuing need for sector leadership, and also the challenges facing those seeking to lead.


Despite the differences of view expressed by participants and experts throughout the Futures Dialogue, there was a considerable amount of consensus over many of the key issues, and a shared concern to explore a positive role for the third sector in responding to the political and economic circumstances that it faced. However the dialogue did not conclude a prescriptive model for the future of the sector, and much of what was agreed on was the direction or context for responses (what needs to be done), rather than the substance of a particular vision for the future (how we should do it). This covered the following themes:

Diversity and unity – the diversity of the sector is a key strength, but there was also felt to be a need for collective voices to represent the sector and influence the policy environment.

Distinctiveness – third sector organisations do have distinctive characteristics as the basis for collective
social action and for normative discourse about the promotion of progressive social values or ‘doing good’.

Autonomy – independence of action and organisation is critical to the sector, although in practice this often means organisations having the autonomy to proactively manage their interdependence with other agencies and actors. Third sector organisations are autonomous agents.

Politics and policy – the changing policy environment does influence organisational development; however organisations can, and should, challenge policies when they deem this appropriate and should continue to advocate on behalf of their users and beneficiaries for policy change. Third sector organisations are not ‘policy victims’ and should act to challenge the environment in which they operate.

What is the sector for?

The Futures Dialogue concluded with some reflections on the bigger question of the overall purpose of voluntary action and organisation. This recognised a continuing tension between the fortunes and structures of individual organisations and their broader missions, posing two questions:

• when does flexibility and adaptability within organisations become little more than self-preservation?

• is what we do ultimately more important than who we are?

It was also recognised that discussion of the purpose of the sector encompassed a normative discourse on values and purposes. Should the sector aim to promote social value and to ‘do good’? And, if so, how can we ensure that these issues remain at the centre of debate, and practice?

Key challenges

Each discussion in the Futures Dialogue raised an important challenge for participants and policy makers in the third sector. Together, these form a broader framework for further discussion throughout the sector:

• What will be the emerging shape of the third sector as the unsettlement unfolds: will the divide between larger and smaller organisations widen, and does it matter?

• What will be the impacts of austerity on the nature of different forms of unpaid participation and paid work in the third sector?

• What distinctive dimensions of third sector activities should be highlighted in the need to demonstrate value; and how is impact best articulated and measured?

• How can third sector organisations negotiate their relationships with the public and private sectors, and maintain their autonomy and mission?

• What role is there for a united voice within the third sector, given that there are so many different perspectives and positions to be found within it?

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