TSI’s Midterm Seminar on 13 October with stakeholders from mostly Brussels based third sector organisations and networks focused on opportunities and barriers for third sector participation in EU policy making, TSI’s concept of the third sector, social impact and its measurement. Third sector organisations and social enterprises alike are under increasing pressure to demonstrate impact and justify public money spent on their work, creating a range of challenges distracting them from their social mission.

TSI’s Annette Zimmer outlined the findings of research on third sector barriers in Germany that undermine organisations and associations. Reduced public spending and thus funding for the third sector is one challenge in many EU countries, but difficulties also arise in relation to impact assessment and transparency pressures. Many associations operating in the field of leisure and health like sports clubs struggle finding volunteers to serve on boards, as bureaucratic demands make the task increasingly time consuming. Also larger welfare organisations complain about the time spent on documenting activities, both in order to obtain funding and to prove “success” throughout funding periods. Comparative work is under way to understand whether these trends are common also in other countries and how NPOs interact with their institutional and social environments.

As our panel speakers Antonella Noya from the OECD/LEED Forum on Social Innovation and Ariane Rodert of the European Economic and Social Forum underlined, measuring social impact is one of the most difficult tasks that requires skills, time and money – resources associations, organisations and social enterprises want to invest in their social mission. Thus they are impact driven but are increasingly forced to respond to top-down reporting criteria that might even hinder them in the creation of social value. Virtually impossible to measure, at least in statistical terms, is the democratic contribution of third sector entities, as TSI’s Lester Salamon underlines. However, democratic governance is one of the dimensions of associations and social enterprises that really distinguishes them from for-profit organisations, as Marthe Nyssens from the Department of Economics at the University of Louvain pointed out during the panel.

There are chances in impact measurement, such as giving visibility to third sector contributions in society, but as stakeholders pointed out “we just need things to happen”. Impact and innovation measurement pressures are just another barrier to getting on with the work public services no longer deliver and to active citizenship that democracies depend on if they want to claim legitimacy for their political decisions.

At European level expectations of the third sector have changed over time, moving from interest in the sector as economic partner, mostly in terms of job creation, over legitimising factor of EU policies to a more pragmatic approach that reduced expectations of third organisations to provide expertise, represent the interests of citizens and consumers, and to provide services in a decentralised way. Third sector stakeholders expressed numerous grievances that result from this vision of partnership, including the near impossibility of maintaining democratic process and governance when invited to respond to policy initiatives at short notice. The scope for participation in policy discourse is limited if organisations do not have the funds to have an ongoing presence in Brussels, but also due to the fact that the presence of NPOs depends to some extent on the chance of being on the right mailing list.

Funding is a crucial challenge for thirds sector organisations operating at EU level. Some receive European funding, but the European Parliament takes a critical stance towards funding civil society. The competition for public funds available is growing. Access to policy-makers is combative: “You have to get in early, you have to follow everything that moves. And if you start missing things you are out of the picture”, which fits more the profile of lobbyists than third sector organisations. The legacy of Third sector input to policy discourse is also hard to assess, as there is no guarantee that expertise and advice given will ever be reflected at national level.

However, stakeholders do report a renewed interest in civic dialogue under the current European Commission government, but feel that they must talk more to national interest representation in European Parliament and national media for impact. For EU level participation they form changing alliances and platforms like Civil Society Europe, but this comes with its own challenges of diverging interests, regional differences and funding competition. Input also depends on interest for cooperation in the relevant Directorate Generals (DGs).

There is a general sense that the climate for third sector participation at EU level has become harsher. Combined with the barriers identified at national levels, one might talk about a third sector under threat. This places research in a position of great responsibility: concepts, tools and standards are needed to show the valuable contributions and the uniqueness of the sector.

What makes the third sector unique? Read TSI’s report “From Concept to Metrics” and comment on the barriers researchers and stakeholders pointed out.