The role of the third sector in democratisation was the theme of the biennial International Third Sector Research conference in Siena three weeks ago.
Is a conference to discuss this question vital in view of the growing evidence of major fault lines in the governance of our financial, media and political systems? Or is it an ivory tower luxury when organisations face a daily grind of fire-fighting, spending reductions and meeting people's needs with increasingly stretched resources?
The recent Charity Pulse poll showed sector morale at an all-time low, as spending reductions result in employees losing confidence in their leaders while becoming increasingly reluctant to challenge them. But isn't this precisely the moment when we need to remind ourselves of why we are here, and what the sector stands for?
I was quite shocked when Rami Khouri, an academic from the American University of Beirut and a journalist on Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, said in the conference's closing plenary that the third sector had played no role in recent Arab democratisation. It took a moment for me to realise he was referring not to ineffectiveness in civil society, but to the fact that the infrastructure that is such an important part of advocacy for disempowered groups in the western world is largely missing from the Arab world.
Without a recognised place in the power structure, there is no room for civil society groups to act. Such groups now have an extraordinary opportunity to move into the space between government and individual citizens, learning from developed third sectors how to translate needs into policy demands, establish mechanisms for ongoing accountability and provide a space for dialogue and debate.
They still need to establish a place at the table in policy consultation and formulation - a place that we take for granted, even if we do grumble that we should have had more influence or got noticed only after we made a fuss.
Paper after paper at the conference reminded us of the role the third sector plays when other institutions fail people. Foundations, for example, can support innovation, including in finance. Sector organisations can take flexible and fair approaches to service delivery, defend quality and social value and build on the principles of volunteering and mutuality. They can monitor the functions of the state and the private sector, constituting what the political theorist John Keane calls a 'monitory democracy'.
It was not that delegates were seeing the sector through rose-tinted spectacles as they enjoyed the Tuscan sun, wine and food. It was more a recognition that now, more than ever, the third sector's role in maintaining democracy and providing alternatives is crucial. Although charities might be feeling more vulnerable and uncertain than for years, their role has never been more important.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School