What is the third sector and what does it do?

What is the third sector?

The ‘third sector’ is an umbrella term that covers a range of different organisations with different structures and purposes, belonging neither to the public sector (i.e., the state) nor to the private sector (profit-making private enterprise). You may have heard other terms used to describe such organisations – the voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations, non-profit organisations – particularly in public discussions around policy and politics. These terms all describe organisations which share the same fundamental elements:

  • Non-governmental: although they often work with or alongside government agencies, and may receive government funding or commissions, third sector organisations are independent from the government.
  • Non-profit: third sector organisations raise funds and generate financial surpluses in order to invest in social, environmental, or cultural objectives. They do not seek to make profits as an end in its own right.
  • Values-driven: third sector organisations pursue specific goals which are often aligned with particular social and political perspectives. They may be associated with or work with political parties, but a political party is not a third sector organisation.

Third sector organisations include:

  • Charities
  • Voluntary and community organisations
  • Social enterprises and cooperatives
  • Think tanks and private research institutes (this does not include universities and colleges)
  • Some organisations, such as housing associations, have been spun off from government and are considered quasi-third sector groups, even though they deliver public services.

Third sector organisations operate at all levels of society, from the very local to the national and the international, and they make a significant – and rapidly increasing – contribution to the health and well-being of society both in the UK and abroad. Following the 2010 General Election, the government made it clear that charities and voluntary organisations would be expected to perform an increasing amount of the social and cultural functions which it has previously been the work of the public sector to provide, and many third sector organisations receive government commissions to provide services on the government’s behalf.

The Office for Civil Society, led by the Minister for Civil Society, is the government agency currently tasked with overseeing the government’s civil society agenda, and managing the relationship between the third sector and the government.

The growing importance of the third sector to public life and services is not just limited to the UK, but is a worldwide phenomenon. For this reason, working with third sector organisations can be a very effective way to impact on public policy.

What does the third sector do?

Typically most third sector organisations devote themselves either to a particular issue which needs solving (for example, climate change or unaffordable housing); or to a particular group in society (for example, dementia sufferers, or women facing cultural barriers to education) who requires support and representation. They may provide services related to these issues (for example, running a women’s shelter, or providing legal advice). Some organisations (particularly think tanks and research institutes) may work on a whole range of issues, but apply a particular philosophical and political filter. Their focus maybe local, national, or global.

Third sector groups try to achieve their aims through a wide range of activities. Some, such as fundraising, providing services, or providing other forms of direct support and advice to the groups they help, are about immediate action. However, third sector organisations usually also want to back up direct assistance with long-term or systemic change, involving changes to relevant local, national, or international policies. They seek to bring these policy changes about in lots of different ways, all of which offer potential opportunities for academic collaboration or input.

Carrying out or commissioning research

Many third sector organisations either employ their own researchers, or commission independent or academic researchers, to carry out investigations into subjects that affect the groups and issues they deal with. In addition, they will also aim to be widely-read in the existing and emerging academic research in relevant fields. Research helps third sector organisations identify emerging issues they should focus on, and provides evidence to back up their policy proposals and campaigning. This is an obvious way your research can make a real difference.

Public campaigns

Third sector organisations also aim to raise public awareness and shape public perceptions about particular issues. They do this through public campaigns that may use a range of traditional and social media to get their message across. These campaigns may be aimed at the general public, or they may be targeted at certain groups or sectors, and this will affect media strategies and types of platform chosen. Third sector organisations want these campaigns to be as credible and authoritative as possible, so this is another area where academic research or an academic viewpoint can be of real value.

Lobbying or advocacy

Third sector organisations seek to bring about policy change by lobbying politicians, and by influencing government officials and civil servants responsible for the policy areas which impact on the groups or issues they represent. Depending on the organisation’s area of interest, they may lobby local MPs or the responsible minister, submit evidence to relevant select committees, or brief local or national government bodies. This is another point where your research can be valuable: third sector organisations need evidence to support their recommended actions, and they may wish to collaborate with academics on a joint submission or briefing.