Many of us heaved a sigh of relief when the Third Sector Research Centre's new inquiry into the state of the sector took the form of an open web-based dialogue rather than another eminent commission.
At a time of growing diversity and fragmentation, and policy changes of which the repercussions are difficult to predict, we need the broadest possible debate. The TSRC's Futures Dialogues, open until April 2013, are being conducted through meetings, online Q&As and blogs. And because reaching out to the parts others don't is potentially chaotic, the process is focused on a carefully structured set of themes, underpinned by well-researched background papers. I have to confess, however, that although I am a core member of the 'sounding board' that summarises each subject, time pressures mean I have not yet participated in the dialogue.
Its central themes are the impact of change, the future of volunteering, sector distinctiveness, relationships with state and market, and leadership. And looking at the forest of question marks strewn across the dialogue documentation, it seems that third sector organisations face a lot of big questions, ranging from the scary - "what does a good society look like?" - to the more practical - "do we expect volunteers and paid staff to fulfil different roles?" But I think that one of its questions should be addressed as a priority before the dialogue begins to pull its threads together. This is the one called 'the big question' - namely, "is there a third sector, or just a range of sub-sectors?"
The answer is fundamental to futures thinking. Although the dialogue poses the question, it is itself rooted and framed in terms of the single-sector notion. It asks "how should the sector work with government?" and "do we necessarily want more organisations to register?", and suggests "if we want to attract more people to the sector, it is vital to think about why people get involved". The challenge is that this might result in the familiar generic list of policy recommendations that imply consensus and serve no one in particular.
There's a chicken-and-egg question here. Before talking about what the sector needs, the case for treating it as one body needs to be made. Is what organisations share more important than what separates them? The dialogue sees the sector as under threat unless it thinks about its relationship with government. But haven't many leading organisations already done this and developed a clear-sighted view of where they are?
An alternative dialogue rooted in the position that there is 'just a series of sub-sectors' might look quite different. It could provide a platform for thinking about the future of the good society. For example, are some sub-sectors more powerful than others? If, as the Future Dialogues say, somebody ought to be "identifying opportunities to change things positively", then I want to know who, where and for whom.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School