One of TSIs objectives is to address the lack of united systematic methodological guidelines and empirical analyses of third sector impact in Europe. After presenting a review of the existing scientific literature on impact measurement methodologies and elaboration of a set of impact indicators both at the micro (individual) and macro (societal) levels in November 2014, we can now report progress on our next objective: The analysis of existing data to test the methodological validity of TSIs impact indicators.

TSI research focuses on the impact of third sector activity on wellbeing and quality of life; innovation; civic engagement and advocacy; economic impact, local community development, and human resources with the goal of development of measures for the most significant potential impact variation between European countries and regions. In a first step researchers use existing data – cross-national surveys or combinations of national surveys – to analyse the individual effects of volunteering, employment and participation in third sector organizations for various types of socio-economic impacts in European countries. This will provide a first comparative assessment of third sector impacts across Europe and explain observed differences.

Data used stem from Satellite account data, data from the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (CNP), data on Voluntary work measured by LFS, national, cross-national or European surveys such as Time Use Survey (HETUS), European Social Survey, Euro-barometer, European Values Study, SHARE – Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. Additionally, in some partner countries time-series data on volunteering and organizational data are available, and will be considered for addressing the issue of causality and for exploring the mechanisms linking outputs, outcomes, and impacts, as well as for describing long-term development trends.

The analysis of existing data allows testing the methodological validity of the set of impact indicators as well as to produce a first estimate of these impacts. In addition, TSI will identify problems related to the attribution of impacts on macro and micro level to the third sector and to volunteering and explore different types of analytical and statistical solutions.
To this end, a series of working papers has recently been published. A paper linking the concept of the third sector to potential impact domains integrates TSIs work on definition, measurement, and impact assessment. TSI Working Paper No 5: “Measuring the Impact of the Third Sector: From Concept to Metrics” provides a theory of the different functions of third sector with links to impact domains, concluding that third sector organizations can potentially play a role in society that is economic, social and civic, contributing to value pluralism, associative life and maintenance of values and norms.

TSI Working Paper Series No. 3: “Third sector impacts on human resources and community: a critical review” reviews the literature on third sector impact on human resources and community. The paper identifies several overarching issues that characterise the state of knowledge and methodology in the field of third sector impact studies.

Two working papers are analysing individual survey data spanning a large number of European countries, addressing the problems of self-selection – people who choose to be involved may already have characteristics assumed to be possible impacts of the third sector, such as improved health, well-being, and civic engagement – with propensity scores matching estimators. TSI Working Paper No 4: „The Impact of Volunteering on Volunteers in 23 European Countries“ finds positive effects on political engagement, but not on health and well-being in contrast to many previous studies. This suggests that health and wellbeing may be a precondition for volunteering, but that there may be a positive effect on political engagement.

The second empirical working paper focuses on voluntary work during unemployment, and investigates if volunteering can compensate for the loss in manifest and latent benefits associated with paid work and thus improve unemployed individuals’ wellbeing and mental health in 29 European countries. It is found that this depends on generous welfare benefits.

TSI Working Paper No. 7: “Unemployment, volunteering, subjective well-being and mental health” focuses on voluntary work during unemployment, and investigates if volunteering can compensate for the loss in manifest and latent benefits associated with paid work and thus improve unemployed individuals’ wellbeing and mental health in 29 European countries. It finds that this depends on generous welfare benefits.

Analysis of impact on the organizational level is often done by single organizations, as a response to requirements by funders to prove the impact of specific projects. Organizations want to attract donors and support by presenting this kind of documentation, using established concepts such as Social Return on Investment (SROI). However, there are dimensions particular to the third sector that tend to be ignored because of lacking indicators. This weakness of organizational impact analysis is addressed in TSI Working Paper no. 6: “Meta-Analysis of SROI Studies – Indicators and Proxies”.

A review of research on social innovation is under way. It will focus on to what extent the findings can be related to third sector contributions. A study from the UK looking at the importance of density of voluntary organizations for participation will show that organizational density on community level is a less important infrastructure than assumed in previous research and in several current policy initiatives.

Long-term changes in impact of the European third sector will be addressed in the next step “Developmental trends of the Third Sector in Europe”. The final report on third sector impact will consist of a set of methodological guidelines for further development of the measurement of TSOs impacts.