A central goal of the Third Sector Impact project is to institutionalize the capability of national statistical agencies to generate reliable empirical data on the third sector. After publishing a consensus definition of the third sector in Europe in December, an important prerequisite for statistical agencies to implement data gathering systems that capture third sector activity and impact, TSI and the Directorate General Research & Innovation of the European Commission now co-hosted the event “Putting the Third Sector on the Statistical Map of Europe”.

Representatives of the European Economic and Social Council, the International Labour Organization, the directorates of the European Commission Education & Culture (EAC), Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion (EMPL) and Internal Market, Industry, Social Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW), the statistical institutes of nine European countries, and researchers from eight European universities or research institutes engaged in the TSI project attended this conference in Brussles on June 1st, 2015. The result exceeded all expectations: “A quiet revolution is underway in European statistical agencies with regard to the portrayal of the organizations and individual activity that comprise the third, or citizen, sector in Europe”, summarised TSI researcher Lester M. Salamon of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center.

The general sense of this conference was summarized nicely by Ariane Rodert, vice president of the EESC committee representing citizen groups : “The third sector has been invisible in European statistics for too long. It is now time to bring this citizen sector into view so that we can better understand its important contributions and make better use of its talents and resources.” As Prof. Salamon noted, the statistical machinery for accomplishing this task is now at hand.

Building on the Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project directed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University the UN Statistics Division issued a Handbook on Nonprofit Institutions in the System of National Accounts (SNA) in 2003, recommending that national statistical agencies produce regular “satellite accounts” to highlight the role of nonprofit institutions, which otherwise are largely buried in the statistics of other sectors and are therefore invisible. This handbook was revised in 2008, calling on countries to pull NPIs out of the other economic sectors in which they are buried and report on them separately in their national accounts statistics. Then, in 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) issued a Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work which for the first time called on statistical offices to begin measuring volunteer work in a comparative, systematic fashion. A 2013 ILO resolution added further reinforcement to these directives.

To date, however, only three European countries have officially implemented the UN NPI Handbook–Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Norway. But from the evidence of the June 1st conference, a far larger number have significant implementation work under way. Indeed, a subterranian earthquake appears to be gathering force in European statistical agencies that seems poised to burst into view, confirming the Johns Hopkins Project findings and exposing officially the surprising truth that the third sector is one of the largest “industries” in Europe.

For example:

  • GUS, Poland’s statistical agency, has been building an elaborate body of statistical data on nonprofit institutions over the past decade and recently became the first country to implement the ILO Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work.
  • Portugal’s Instituto Natonal Estatistica (INE) is now committed to producing a satellite account on the social economy every two years and recently issued a major report based on its initial implementation of the ILO Manual;
  • ISTAT in Italy just completed its third major census of nonprofit institutions and social cooperatives and a parallel citizen survey on volunteer work and is about to issue an NPI satellite account;
  • A French law has mandated a satellite account on the “social economy,” embracing cooperatives and mutuals as well as nonprofits;
  • The National Bank of Belgium, with support from the King Baudouin Foundation, has been producing regular NPI satellite accounts for a decade and now the Belgian statistics agency has agreed to integrate questions on volunteer work into its labor force surveys;
  • The ILO has issued a new regulation on work that explicitly embraces volunteer work as an important component deserving regular, systematic measurement;
  • In Austria, work is going forward to clarify the coverage of one portion of the entire NPI sector, with pressures from civil society groups to broaden this coverage to NPIs buried in other economic sectors.
  • Germany federal statistical agency has entered a partnership with several foundations and a leading research body to generate statistical data on its vast nonprofit sector;
  • And in the Netherlands, labor force statisticians have agreed to incorporate a limited range of questions on volunteer work into the huge Dutch labor force survey.

Against this backdrop of significant movement, the Third Sector Impact project has now opened a third front in the battle to improve the visibility of the third sector with formulating the consensus definition of the “third sector” that systematically and objectively identifies the truly public-serving components of the cooperative, mutual, and social enterprise sectors and spells out how they can be incorporated along with NPIs and volunteer work into an even more comprehensive statistical picture of the third sector. This broadened definition will now be incorporated as a suggestion into a revision of the UN’s NPI Handbook due out in 2015.

The one missing actor in this striking European movement to give greater visibility to the third, or “citizen,” sector in official statistics is Europe’s official statistical agency, Eurostat. Indeed, far from following the international statistical community or even some of its own leading statistical agencies, Eurostat neglected to include in its own recently issued version of the 2008 SNA the 2008 SNA provision calling for the separate reporting on NPIs buried in the corporate and government accounts in the SNA system. Several participants at the June 1st conference identified Eurostat’s seeming indifference as a significant barrier to further improvements in the statistical visibility of the third sector in Europe and urged Eurostat to join the movement that seems to be gathering momentum to correct this shortcoming.

TSI will follow up on this significant event with a press release and policy brief. For an EC-funded research project this event was an example of breaking new ground in research: including different stakeholder groups in the process, delivering good input to policy making process, and putting research results to immediate use.

Available for download:

  • TSI Press Release No.4 “A statistical revolution in data on the third sector in Europe”
  • Presentations delivered by TSI consortium members Bernard Enjolras and Lester M. Salamon, ILO’s Kieran Walsh, and representatives of national statistical agencies in Austria, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Serbia and Sweden
  • Conference programme
  • List of participants