The issue of improving the visibility of the third sector emerges as the key demand and challenge at the TSI’s final conference in Brussels on 9 November. Visibility has a number of components, provided by a variety of stakeholders – researchers, policy makers, statistical agencies, the media – who must all contribute their part to shine a light on the distinctive impact and contribution of citizens towards common good, shared values, democracy, well-being and social equality in Europe. This event was an opportunity to bring many of those relevant stakeholders together to reflect on ways forward for third sector development. As concluded by the TSI Coordinator Bernard Enjolras, fundamental to this end is the capacity of the third sector itself to articulate its own counter-narrative, that centres the public debate on the distinctive traits and values of the sector, based on the participation, self-expression and self-organization of citizens.

After the welcome by the project coordinator Bernard Enjolras, the keynote speaker Gerry Salole, Chief Executive of the European Foundation Center, a platform for institutional philanthropy in Europe, started with clarifying one fundamental characteristics of the foundations and the third sector alike: they are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Classifying them is similar to trying to describe and contain a many-headed hydra, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even more slippery, and more varied than before.”

As if this were not already challenge enough, he quickly listed further pressure points for the sector, like a “bombardment of unrealistic expectations” that third sector organisations (TSOs) can in any way replace state funding; the need to keep up with their social mission while being subjected to “mounting expectations that they should account for and explain all their decisions and activities”; by becoming more and more subject of regulations and public scrutiny; the loss of autonomy due to pressure to collaborate in order to pool resources; and finally the unreasonable demand to demonstrate impact on a short term.

While many third sector organisations might in principle be interested in demonstrating the impact their actions and activities have on peoples’ lives, they are left with a number of puzzles just how to deliver the evidence and data that they need. Caught between justification demands, the drive to fulfil their social goals, dwindling resources and adaptation pressures, the combined impact of those players remains shrouded and largely invisible.

Step 1 towards visibility: Defining the nature of the third sector

Who or what is the third sector? The first task of the TSI project was to formulate a consensus definition of the third sector capable of capturing the various concepts developed in different European countries, a pre-requisite to begin data collection that is comparable and meaningful. The resulting consensus definition generated by the TSI project embraces all associations, foundations not controlled by government as well as cooperatives, mutuals and social enterprisesthat operate under a limit on their distribution of profit, unpaid voluntary work that individuals carry out for persons outside their household or immediate family.

This definition has now been incorporated into a new United Nations statistical handbook that calls on national statistical agencies to assemble special “satellite accounts” reporting on the economic scale, finances, and employment of the “third, or social economy (TSE)” sector that this definition identifies.

This definition remains open to scrutiny and debate, at least in countries where non-profit organisations are the dominant feature of the third sector. The limited profit re-distribution as a facet of the social economy is a concern for the legitimacy of the third sector, that in some countries suffers from accusations of making money from tax payers’ contributions. On the other end of the third sector sphere, the traditional organizations-based third sector is reluctant to accept direct volunteering – informal help and non-formalized civil society engagement – as part of the sector. Promoting a definition that captures the basic features of the third sector in its diversity will remain a challenge for the TSI researchers beyond the ending of the project.

Step 2: Collect data, evidence and testimonies

Armed with this conceptualization, the project has managed to assemble a first preliminary estimate of the size, composition, and employment base of this TSE sector, including both its organizational and individual volunteer components. The picture that emerges is of a TSE sector workforce of approximately 28.3 million workers, including the full-time equivalent work of volunteers as well as the paid workers of the in-scope associations, foundations, cooperatives, and mutual associations. This means that the TSE sector workforce is the third largest of all industries in Europe, behind manufacturing and trade, but well ahead of such industries as transportation and finance and insurance.


Data concerning the size and the scope of the third sector is a huge topic of interest. Many activities at national, European and even global level concern themselves with this aspect of visibility. The adoption of the project’s TSE sector definition in the new UN statistical Handbook opens the door to the possibility that such data will now be produced on a regular basis throughout Europe, which will help boost third sector visibility significantly. Indeed, just the night before the TSI final conference Luxemburg hosted a meeting to assemble an initial group of countries considering implementation of the new UN Handbook and producing the recommended TSE sector satellite accounts on a regular basis. This was preceded by a gathering of some 20 European statistical officials by the Government Statistical Office of Poland on October 27-28 to learn first-hand from the authors of the new UN Handbook embodying the TSI Project’s conceptualization of the third sector how to construct the TSE sector satellite accounts that his Handbook calls for.

In her comments at the TSI Project Final Conference, Cristina Ramos of the National Statistical Office of Portugal reported that her office considered the production of satellite accounts such as the one recommended on the TSE sector to be highly effective for statistical agencies since they allow statistical agencies to get additional mileage and use out of data they have already generated. While some intensive work is required at the outset, the payoffs are ultimately considerable. For Portugal this endeavour has produced important insights: data show that the third sector is a resilient sector that acts as a social pillow in time of crisis. As evidence of the value that third sector and policy-makers can secure from the kind of data the new UN Handbook will generate, the King Baudouin Foundation in Brussels has not only forged a strong partnership with the National Bank of Belgium to generate such data, but has also created an Observatory of Associations and Foundations that disseminates the resulting data to policy-makers, the media, and the non-profit and philanthropic sector more broadly, boosting the visibility of this sector and helping to engage it in the policy process.  Jean-Christophe Burkel, managing director of a consortium of third and social economy organizations in Luxembourg reinforced this point, stressing the enormous importance of improved data for boosting the visibility of the TSE sector and improving the policy context within which it operates.

Almost as important as data, said Risto Raivio, expert for Social Entrepreneurship at the DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission, is the contextualisation of the third sector activities. We need to show the problems that cause market failures and to tell the success stories of TSOs. The latest Mapping studies of Social Entrepreneurship work towards the visibility of the social economy across Europe by zooming in on the eco-systems social economy and third sector organisations are embedded in.

The importance of data and of shared European standards as the evidence necessary to claim better promotion and support for the third sector has been a long term claim also of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) Group III link, which hosted the TSI conference as a token of recognition for a fruitful structured collaboration with the TSI project. Ariane Rodert, who leads on the EESC work on social economy, passionately advocated that regulations, requirements and impact measures need be tailor-made for the third sector organizations, in respect of their distinctive nature, and not flattened down to business models.

Step 3: Use data, evidence and testimony to get political attention

Of course, evidence is important to improve the work one does to reach a certain goal. Taking a global perspective, Margaret Carroll from UN Volunteers touched upon some of the important advancements in measuring progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): To hear about what others are doing to measure the third sector at different levels, including further development and implementation of the UN Handbook on Non Profit Institutions in the System of National Accounts, is useful in going forward for UNV’s work on maximising the visibility of the contribution of volunteerism to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030”. The contribution of citizens and their organizations is explicitly recognized by the UN in Goal 17, which constitutes a pre-requisite for including the third sector and volunteering activities in the system of indicators, on which all countries are required to report.

However, as Jens Nilsson, MEP from Sweden and Co-Chair of the Intergroup for Social economy pointed out: “This flurry of activity of representatives of research, third sector and social economy professionals and bodies advising policy at European level avails to not much impact if nation states do not pull along, bringing it back to the issue of the visibility and the impact of the third sector.” If the third sector renounces to call to account national governments as to the implementation of supporting policies, both research and European policy initiatives risk to remain sterile. In times when evidence-based policy is scarce, you have to make front-page news before politicians take notice, as some participants pointed out.

The political context is very important, and there is ecosystem variation in the countries TSI worked in. While some countries have competitive structures for public funding (i.e. Germany) and little subsidies (i.e. Croatia), countries like France have generous government funds or legal frameworks to support the social economy and foundations. The Netherlands has a long tradition of government programmes that seek to foster volunteering and citizen engagement. But the budgets are shrinking. Furthermore, as Hugues Sibille of the Credit Cooperatif Foundation and veteran in promoting the Social and Solidarity Economy in France points out: “We have a law and we have a minister, but do we actually have a policy? There isn’t a political will to say that the third sector is dealing with issues in society that are political priorities. Who is going to implement and do something with the proposals?” Which takes us back to the crux in the matter: visibility – not only of the third sector organisations and the many people who engage every day, but of the issues themselves that TSO’s address. It is not acceptable to just wait and see how much the rise of the populism in the Western world is going to change that. “The social economy is a way to respond to this and politicians must be convinced of that – and they are not.”

The crux: Weak capacity to speak to politicians

An essential characteristic of the third sector is its transversal nature that cuts across a great variety of sectors of activity and societal issues. This makes it extremely difficult to speak with a common voice and to impose political interest and engage in a structured policy dialogue. During the last decade, the awareness of the third sector itself of being the bearer of shared interest of citizens’ participation has matured, so in numerous European countries cross-sector platforms are emerging in the public sphere. The Third Sector Platform in Spain, the Interest Group of Public Benefit Organizations in Austria, the National Council of Volunteer Organisations in the UK, the National Network for Civil Society in Germany, or the Superior Council for Social and Solidarity Economy in France are all examples of third sector organisations coming together under umbrellas to better represent their interest in public and political discourse. Yet, to some extent, they also portray not only the diversity but also the fragmentation of the sector, one of the key barriers to gaining visibility as sector, also in terms of the capacity to demonstrate the overall impact on the social and economic development.

In the meantime, the European Commission remains passive: despite repeated demands to increase visibility, improve access to financing and improve the legal environment across Europe for foundations and associations, last formulated by the Group of Experts of Social Economy (GECES), there is silence: The 2017 European Commission investment plan says nothing about this and none of the Commissioners has attended any of the expert group’s meeting. This stresses the need for a Commissioner for the third sector, which corresponds to one of the recommendations of the TSI project, that calls for a dedicated institutional door to mainstreaming the specific needs of the sector transversally across different policy fields.

Third sector under pressure: Strategies of resilience

Earlier we mentioned the role of testimony. TSI conducted some 20 in-depth case studies to understand how third sector organisations working in the fields of social services, culture and the arts, an sports and leisure, are coping and adapting to eco-systems or environments that are increasingly tough. From the comparative analysis of barriers and trends, the following emerge as most significant: rolling back of structural and core funding; inappropriate regulations and pressures on public-private partnerships; withdrawal of the welfare state; difficulties in recruiting long-term volunteers, including for Boards; the burden of bureaucracy; the need to employ market strategies and to professionalize, especially for TSOs providing services, which generates a cultural shift from community-based and citizen-run entities to professional TSOs; worsening work conditions for employees.

Of course, creating more impact might help with the sector’s visibility issues. But how to increase the impact when the environmental conditions are getting harsher? And how to demonstrate it? The TSI-project presented research on different levels of analysis: individual, organizational and societal level. It also uses different methodological approaches: statistical analysis of individual survey data, multi-level analysis of data on individuals and local communities, meta-analysis of impact analysis on the organizational level using Social Return of Investment (SROI) tools, historical comparative analysis of the role of civil society in social transformation of post-communist countries.

TSI found that volunteering can have positive impacts on the socio-economic development in Europe. However, systematic reviews of research do not support unconditional and general claims about improvement of health, wellbeing, innovation, social capital, empowerment, or economic development. Only by using the best available sources of data and suitable methods, can we understand under which circumstance the third sector and volunteering can have positive impacts. Our research shows that better health and well-being may be a result of who decides to volunteer rather than an effect of volunteering. However, political engagement may increase as a result of volunteering. Among unemployed, volunteering may improve mental health and well-being, but only when there are generous welfare benefits. These findings indicate that the impacts of third sector and volunteering depend not only on the activities that take place, but also on the kind of support and conditions the government provides.

In the meantime, third sector organisations are adapting to changing working conditions, owed to the liberalization of welfare in countries like the Netherlands, Germany, France or the Scandinavian countries; lack of trust in the civil society capacity in post-Socialist countries like Croatia, but interestingly enough also in the UK; and the weak mechanisms of public-third sector partnerships owed to the history of dictatorship and strong regionalization like in Spain. The pressures of ecosystems result in new modes of working and adaptations that result in different forms of TSO organization. Participants from third sector initiatives in different countries gave testimony of their strategies of survival. Sometimes TSOs just need to be smart to locate new opportunities in their local ecosystems and combine them with longstanding and trust-based relationships with municipalities, as in the case of the sports association Bergedorf in Hamburg, which benefits from new financial resources for after-hour childcare, statutory new service for schools in the city, who collaborate with the sports club.

There is a risk of undermining the civic function (policy brief barriers) of the third sector, were it not for the strong networks and trust-based relationships in local settings that stakeholders like Jany Hansal from Deša Dubrovnik, Michal Orzechowski of the Polish Association for Persons with Intellectual Disability, and Sam Khebizi of the French cultural organization Les Têtes de l’Art reported.

These are the distinctive features of the third sector and the survival and further development of the sector depends greatly on a thorough understanding and adequate public support measures (policy brief recommendations). On the other hand, the constant need for adaptation to increasingly harsh conditions is tough for practitioners up to the point they wonder, “how far they really want to go”, as Rebecca Gerritse from Humanitas Netherlands expressed so well.


However, most third sector practitioners found it difficult to locate themselves clearly within the different “clusters of resilience” proposed by TSI, bearing the danger of further loosing rather than increasing visibility for “unclassified” organisations – an insight that underlines even further the importance of finding methodologies that can capture and show the diversity of organisations and their impacts, harmonized across Europe.

TSI research strongly suggests that there is a correlation between investment in welfare and volunteering. Less public spending and social protection might have a negative impact on the willingness of people to volunteer, thus threatening the common good function of the third sector. In traditional welfare countries we see how more and more welfare responsibility is handed down to municipalities, leading to strong variation of positive effects even within one country.

Bringing society back in

Representatives working on the national level participating to the conference made their voice strongly heard. Mark Molenaar of the Dutch Association of Voluntary Organizations stated that “retreating national government means that any organization or movement larger than locally based have trouble financing their supportive function. As a society, we should debate on whether we think it important to make certain life quality enhancing activities possible or not. Do we want nature and landscape taken care of? Do we want a wide variety of cultural events and activities? Do we want a strong sports sector? Do we want strong networks on informal care?”

Yes, we do. However, how to transform individual success stories of coping in times of crisis into a supportive policy environment that respects and commits to the third sector, acknowledges its special function of producing trust and social capital, of strengthening the civicness of individuals and thus contributing to a culture that is geared towards the common good, solidarity and inclusion? Sometimes economic arguments like the number of jobs and GDP produced by the sector are stronger arguments in public discourse than the “soft powers” of the sector to improve well-being or civic engagement. In this instance impact measurement can actually help TSOs, especially since measuring systematically the impact of volunteering on health, well-being and social capital at macro-level is proving difficult due to the lack of comparable systematic data.

The third sector is a force to reckon with. But how to promote the third sector from its ranking behind the state and the market? Wojciech Kaczmarczyk, Director of the Department for Civil Society in Poland pointed to the role of research and the lack of fact-based policy that can be derived only from further EU-wide research.

TSI’s set of policy recommendations underline that that TSOs, where possible in conjunction with partners like researchers and statistical agencies, have to try to push the third sector on their national policy agendas. One step towards this is the request to implement the updated UN Handbook on Third, or Social Economy, Institutions  and Household Volunteer Activity (the TSE Sector). Many participants rallied behind the demand for better data and for national satellite accounts on volunteering and third sector activity, since some progress has been made in various countries. This is one of tangible demands that result from both the TSI project and the final conference itself.

Having figures is the best evidence to use in order to claim the political relevance for the third sector. Naturally, a satellite account is not sufficient to characterize the complexity and the comprehensiveness of such a specific area that generates huge positive externalities.  Nevertheless, it is a fundamental basis to obtain further results on impact”, offered Cristina Ramos. She was approached directly after her presentation by Dutch third sector stakeholders to find out how the Netherlands can become part of this mutual learning exercise. We need better numbers, but we also need more platforms for testimony, story-telling, further research on impacts and the exchange of experiences.

Conclusion and outlook

Research is not a predictive tool, but an analytical one that can inform and advise other actors in their codes of conduct. Establishing and nurturing platforms of multi-stakeholder exchange, following the model of TSI’s one-day conference, might be one road to develop counter-discourses that have to find their way into decision-making institutions. “TSI tells the story of people, citizens and their well-being. It all starts here. But in terms of attention, there is a threat of being pushed away by the attention for First and Second Sector“, says Matthijs Terpstra, programme manager for active citizenship of Netherlands Centre for Social Development, Movisie. As the TSI project Coordinator Bernard Enjolras concluded: “The economization trend might end up erasing the specificity of the third sector: it is important to articulate the value of the third sector’s traditional role, but not with the new vocabulary of competition.”


All final conference materials and all outputs of the TSI project are available on the website The messages of the project are condensed in a short animation film released during the conference that all are invited to share and use.