The third sector: confidence, reinvigoration and recognition

2 Aug 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 2 Aug 2021

Charities do lots of heavy lifting (photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash)
Charities do lots of heavy lifting (photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash)

If we want to use the pandemic as a line in the sand, and to create a better society and economy during this period of great upheaval, the third sector needs to be more than an afterthought.


Everyone has heard the slogan Build Back Better.

It is snappy, and hopeful, and a chance to turn the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity to question old shibboleths. It is not an attempt to whitewash the scale of death and disaster the pandemic has wrought; it is a call to make the best of what we have, in the broadest and most fundamental way.

The UK government deems the term Build Back Better so officially catchy that it has two different statutory meanings: it is the name of the G7 nations’ partnership to “meet the tremendous infrastructure need in low- and middle-income countries”; and it is also the name for Westminster’s plan for domestic growth.

As slogans go, it’s the biggest one around. But it’s also just some words, alliterative and vague. Those words will only signify something worthwhile if, individually and collectively, we genuinely interrogate society as it stands today and then improve it to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

This is something the third sector needed to do before the tumultuous year 2020. And it is something it still needs to do now. Charities need a reckoning, one that looks within – and, just as importantly, without.

The Commission on Civil Society is attempting to facilitate something along those lines.

Created by Pro Bono Economics, and with extensive support from the Law Family Charitable Foundation, the commission was established late last year to “steer an ambitious programme of ground-breaking research into how best to unleash the full potential of the UK’s civil society” over a two-year period.

The commission seeks to develop a better understand of three key themes:

  1. the value of what civil society delivers and how to measure it;
  2. the need for joint responsibility and equality between the private, public and social sectors, and;
  3. the ability of civil society to react to market forces

As the organisation says: “The UK is rightly proud of its civil society. But though we have pride in it and we trust it, the social sector is undervalued and too often overlooked.  Public policy focuses on human, financial and physical capital, and says little about social capital. An undervalued civil society will never be as effective or as strong as it could be. And a strong civil society is needed now more than ever.”

Belt and braces vs high-level vision

The commission is still early in its lifetime and its work so far is very broad.

In January, it published findings from a November 2020 survey into public attitudes about charities. The results were positive for the sector. Over 80% of people thought community and voluntary organisations had played an important role in tackling the pandemic, while 60% think they will play a key role in recovery.

However, under a third of respondents think that there are too many charities or community groups, and a similar proportion think the sector is “wasteful”. The majority of the public consider charities to be understaffed, and only half would describe them as “efficient”.

A call for evidence was put out in March (with a deadline for responses in May) that will ultimately look at the environment charities operate in now, and how this can be improved. Findings and analyses will be released periodically. The first such publication was a nuts-and-bolts examination of volunteering that will chime with many people closely involved with the third sector.

Other work includes a look at data gaps around charitable work, particularly when compared with the statutory and private sectors, while Pro Bono Economics also pursues several interesting initiatives in parallel such as its tracker of charity performance.

But perhaps most interesting – or, at least, the most openly revolutionary – publication from the commission so far came at the end of June.

Front foot

Third pillar, not gap filler ­feels as much like a polemic as it does a report. An unusual approach but an honest one – and, in the circumstances, worthwhile.

The paper contrasts the too-common perception of charity as a nice endeavour dealing with niche needs that operate on the fringes of society, if not somewhere separate entirety, which contrasts with the reality of the third sector as a major social force that exists everywhere that there are people.

“When was the last time you saw a prime minister or a chancellor give a speech about civil society? Comparing the relative presence of civil society and the private sector at the Cabinet table tells its own story too. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (the department that has responsibility for civil society) attends just two cabinet committees to collaborate on broader government strategy. Again, civil society’s showing here compares unfavourably to the eight meetings attended by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“The relative lack of engagement with civil society across these forums suggests that the sector may be somewhat overlooked in both official policymaking and broader discussion about the state of the country. Civil society seems to have a limited voice in public debate and limited opportunity to make its voice heard across Whitehall.

“Over time, the side-lining of civil society, in favour of business and the state, runs the risk of weakening the very aspect of society – the community – that the private and public sectors aim to serve. This imbalance is liable to damage both the economy and society more broadly.”

The central theme of the report is that the very way we discuss the issues of the day – and, by extension, the way we design policy, amongst other things – is underdeveloped and incorrect.

It says that from “the public imagination to government policy, the question of what drives our society yields two recurring answers: government and business” and when one begins from that misconception “there appears to be little left for civil society to do besides pick up the pieces that the state and market miss”.

Build Back Better – meaning what?

Scope wrote recently about the five factors for consideration in reshaping the economy for modern challenges.

They are decarbonisation, pandemic recovery, navigating Brexit, understanding and using new tech, and dealing with an ageing population.

Aside from Brexit (for the most part, although its impacts are not just contained within the UK or even within Europe), these are global issues and relevant everywhere.

They are also things that traditionally be social considerations rather than economic ones. Those intellectual barriers are collapsing, however, and not before time.

This new thinking is also a recipe for an economy better served by, and better suited to, the third sector – and one where the impact of social-value organisations should be better appreciated.

In a more general sense, this is the same re-framing that is put forward in Third Pillar, not Gap Filler.

We have not been making small mistakes about how to curate the best economy we can – the prevailing intellectual approach has been wrong in fundamental ways.

What are we all doing here? What’s good and what’s not? The third sector needs to ask these questions of itself, internally. At the same time, externally it needs to find is voice and make sure that voice is heard.

Sharp elbows might be required, but it is hard to imagine how we Build Back Better if the enormous work and value of community and voluntary organisations continues to be both sidelined and taken for granted.

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