A new TSI Working Paper prepared by the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham reviews the literature on third sector impact on human resources and community.
The paper identifies several overarching issues that characterise the state of knowledge in the field of third sector impact studies:
- Third sector contributions are not equally accessible or spread. The effects of voluntary organizations on participation and group representation vary according to social groups and types of organisations.
- The positive benefits of third sector involvement are available to those who are already better off than others, since they are more likely to be involved in the sector than individuals belonging to disadvantaged groups.
- The effects of voluntary participation are gendered and can also vary by age, employment status, income, type of association, and type of involvement.
The review also highlights some overarching methodological issues plaguing third sector impact studies:
- Most studies rely on analyses of cross-sectional or longitudinal panel data where volunteering and the impact have been measured simultaneously. Randomised and controlled trials or carefully designed cohort studies are lacking.
- More rigorous studies are needed in order to provide missing links in the chain of causal reasoning about the relationships between voluntary associations and societal impacts.
The review suggests that other social institutions might be better suited to promote public wellbeing, health, employability, social integration and cohesion than third sector organisations researched in recent years:
- Research must refocus on the manifest (intended) impacts that third sector can provide better than either public or private sector
- Fields to study should be the enhancement of basic rights and democracy.
It also diagnoses a lack of systematic reviews on third sector impact:
- Evidence of impact comes from a multitude of studies of a varied design and quality, but usually not from randomised trials, and is scattered in multiple fields.
- Systematic reviews are needed for assessment when impact includes complex issues of multitude causality.
Third sector institutions like some minority political parties can also be dysfunctional, disrupt order or have other negative consequences. Thus the review includes some theoretical and empirical evidence on the negative effects of associations and several other concerns that affect research and knowledge on third sector impact so far.