It is increasingly bothering me, to the point of driving me crazy, that people refer to the sector I work in as the ‘Third’ sector. It just seems wrong and symptomatic of a sector that is under-appreciated and undervalued. But we accept it, as that is what our sector does, we do not make a fuss, we get on with important things, like helping people and communities.

We are 20% way through the 21st century and yet still so many refer to it as the ‘third’ sector. The other sectors are referred to by an actual name, private and public sectors, but our sector does not even get a name, it is just the third sector. You know, the other one that is not the private or public sector. This label implies we are the bronze medal sector, not quite as important as the first two sectors.

I know many people in our sector do not mind it being called the ‘third’ sector and a few who even like it. There is even a magazine named it and a fair few organisations with it in their name, so why is it important? “Hello? we are in the middle of a Pandemic Dominic, surely there are more important things to talk about?

I agree it does not seem relevant, but our sector right now is critical to the Covid-19 response and in our normal humble way, we are thinking about services to people who need it, not sustainability. Who is going to fight on our behalf and champion this ‘third’ sector against all the other very loud voices demanding help?

The boss of Wetherspoons seems to have a louder voice than our third-place sector. Yet Wetherspoons is only a fraction of the size. Our ‘third’ sector that no one hears from, employing nearly 1 million people, is quietly contributing over £17 billion to the economy, representing almost 1% of GDP. This does not even account for the value of formal and informal volunteering, which is estimated to be around £40 billion. So, surely, we need to be heard from and perhaps not having a proper name negatively influences our ability to be recognised and valued? Without a name, we don’t have a proper identity.

Part of the problem, of course, is not having an easy alternative name that people like. If we had that, I am sure lots of people would prefer to use it. Here are some alternatives I have heard used:

  • Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) – this is the one I find myself using. It’s not catchy but I much prefer it. Sometimes it is expanded to include social enterprises, so VCSE sector. Even less catchy.
  • Civil Society – This is growing on me, but I still do not like it. I think perhaps it is because civil can mean courteous and polite, which as a sector we are with the people we support, but as a name in society it still will be seen as this humble nice sector that is not going to bother anyone so we can undervalue and under-appreciate it as they will not care, they are too nice. No, we need a stronger name.
  • Alpha Sector – I saw a presentation from someone who was so passionate about the influence and importance of our sector that it should be called ‘Alpha’. I like the passion behind this, but maybe, on a similar line, as ‘Delta’ can mean a change or difference then maybe the Delta Sector? We are the sector that makes a difference and change in peoples lives. I like this actually, but fear I am probably the only one. Not many people know the different definitions of Delta and as it also can mean the substitute for the letter D so the D sector could mean fourth place which is even worse than third sector.
  • NGO sector – I do not like this at all and certainly do not like the term Non-Governmental Organisation as it is defining something in the negative and not having its own identity. I like it as much as the idea of rebranding cats as Non-Dog Pets.
  • Charity sector – similar to the above but just referencing charities means it excludes other types of groups (e.g. unconstituted) and organisations (e.g. social enterprises) that operate in our sector.

Don’t you just hate people who say we need a solution but don’t actually offer one themselves? Yes, I am doing that now. However, in my defence, I did somewhat half-heartedly suggest ‘Delta’ Sector.

If someone does have a good name, I am fully ready to get behind you. But in the meantime, can we at least stop calling it the third sector?

Published by Dominic Pinkney

Expert on volunteering, CEO of Camden and Hammersmith & Volunteer Centres as well as not-for-profit social enterprise Works4U

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  1. In day to day life, I use Voluntary and Community Sector. In work, VCSE is used. In my blog, I’ve used Third Sector – I think that is because how it’s called in mainstream media? But none of my colleagues tend to use it and I’m not sure if I’ve spoken those words together.

    I do like Civil Society, but like you prefer VCS.

    Liked by 1 person

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