In recent decades, the third sector (which includes charities and social enterprises) in the UK and abroad has received heightened policy interest as awareness of the limits of market and state-dominated approaches to social problem solving grows. In the UK case, this has involved a slow-motion rollercoaster of change. Initially the sector was embraced under New Labour’s “third way” banner, with its emphasis on the potential for productive partnership with the state. But more recently, in the context of austerity, it has been viewed with favour by Coalition/Conservative Governments through a belief that it has the potential to substitute for “Big Government” while strengthening a “Big Society”. These overarching labels are now politically unfashionable, but the interest they symbolise persists. Attention has been sustained by a series of statutory body and parliamentary committee reviews, while evidence on a range of controversies about governance inadequacies and unethical practices has played out, and been powerfully amplified, by an
increasingly critical national media.

Facing the double challenge of austerity and intensifying scrutiny, it is important to understand the perspective of these organisations themselves on what is at stake. The research summarised here, undertaken as part of a broader Third Sector Impact (TSI) study, demonstrates that in England:

  • Shortfalls in public sector financial support associated with austerity, especially at local level, are widely believed to be constraining the sector’s impact potential, and perceived insufficiency in other forms of funding are also seen as impediments to development;
  • Concerns about recruiting volunteers, especially those needed for boards (trustees), are prominent, although in other respects the workforce situation is seen as a strength;
  • Organisations usually believe themselves to be resilient in terms of public trust and confidence, but more general awareness limitations are seen as a problem by many;
  • Significant numbers of organisations experience their environment as increasingly market and quasi-market driven in terms of resource origins and governance practices, and experience the current political climate as unconducive to non-service provision roles;
  • Despite these pressures, TSI case studies show how some organisations may still flourish. These exemplars have successfully invested in developing and projecting credible public images backed by confirmatory evidence of impact; fostered cultures which support committed staff in a context of shared values embedded in practice; and deploy both technocratic skill and political nous in negotiating their relationships with external agencies,
    especially state bodies, at both local and national levels.

The full Briefing is available for download below. You can also refer to input received during the UK stakeholder meeting with third sector representatives in February 2016 in London, where findings of the UK research in barriers for third sector development were discussed. Feedback received was included in the current Briefing

A second UK TSI Barriers Briefing, builds upon the ‘barriers to impact’ component of the EU Third Sector Impact (TSI) study led by the University of Kent. It seeks to move towards a more nuanced account of the barriers third sector organisations encounter in their attempts to achieving impact, paying particular attention to diversity and difference within the sector.