TSI partners from eight countries assembled in Aix-en-Provence on January 19th for two days of review and planning ahead of the different Third Sector Impact working areas. The meeting was hosted by TSI partner Institute of Labour Economics and Industrial Sociology (LEST)

Partners who attended the meeting hardly took notice of the ongoing rain in the south of France as they were reviewing the different research packages that constitute TSI:

  • the conceptualization of the third sector in Europe, bringing in entities usually ascribed to the social economy while paying tribute to the variation of institutional and cultural environments of the third sector in different EU countries;
  • the measurement of third sector activities and contributions to the economy as well as to social and political life, framed as the mainstream and specific effects of the third sector, and a detailed and differentiated representation of third sector impact in national and European statistics
  • the development of a suitable methodology to adequately measure third sector impact and the added value produced by the sector (the #ThirdSectorPlus, as it was informally termed during the meeting) that can be applied in research as well as by third sector practitioners, who are under increasing pressure to meet certain success indicators;
  • the identification of external and internal barriers third sector organizations are facing in times of reduced public spending and in the face of sometimes hindering, sometimes missing legal frameworks.

Getting first hand input from colleagues working on different research areas in the form of presentations, critical review and scientific recommendations was immensely useful for all partners involved in this large EU-funded research project. Working in smaller but nevertheless multinational research teams on specific sub-themes of TSI is already a challenge, albeit an interesting and rewarding one. Integrating the different work packages into a coherent overview of impacts of the third sector in Europe, convincing statistical agencies and policy-makers at national and European levels to be aware and support the third sector as a social and economic force in its own right, and communicating the results of such a major endeavor back to third sector practitioners is a huge task that requires a fair amount of visionary methodological and strategic thinking.

As third sector organizations large and small have to deal with pressures of austerity the danger of drifting towards isomorphism is high. So is the risk of loosing the added value generally ascribed to the third sector: its contribution to well-being in numerous forms and shapes; the sense of active citizenship and empowerment of activists and practitioners who come together as volunteers or staff members in an organization, social enterprise with a social mission or a larger welfare network; the additional scope for innovation in grassroots-based networks and initiatives; the economic factor of the sector in terms of offering employment opportunities for people who tend to struggle in the first market;…

The objectives of the TSI project are to demonstrate the contributions of the third sector in Europe, both with quantitative and qualitative measures, as well as the barriers the third sector is faced with not only on national but also European level, putting its capacity to deliver services and produce societal values that market and state sectors cannot offer in the same way in danger. During those intensive two days in Aix TSI partners came a long way filling theoretical and methodological gaps and potholes and setting the agenda for the next important steps on the way towards meeting those objectives and measuring third sector impact in Europe.