Craig Dearden-Phillips: Will the third sector still exist in 20 years' time?

Our regular columnist fears that it might, like its Russian counterpart, shrink and disappear underground

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

I know this might sound absurd, but I don’t think it’s a nailed-on given that the third sector will exist at all in a couple of decades’ time. Or at least in a form that would be recognisable from today.

Why do I say this? I see three sets of risks.

First is the "macro" risk that our liberal and democratic society might succumb to other, less permissive forms of government. As it has in Russia, a country I have visited twice, the civil society sector could shrink and disappear underground, starved of the freedom to self-organise.

Second, and perhaps easier to envisage, is that the sector becomes indistinguishable from the other sectors. With more and more "hybrid" organisations holding both commercial and social goals, it might be harder to see a distinct "third" sector. The sectors are already porous and might become blended.

The third threat is the self-inflicted wounds that our sector could do to itself by failing to adapt its governance and its standards, and by not changing its attitude to risk and innovation quickly enough. These weaknesses have already made our sector far less relevant in the big picture than it was a decade ago. It could, on current trajectory, fade completely within a couple of decades.

So what, if anything, can we do?

Well, two things come to mind. One is that the sector needs to continue to champion and cherish liberal and democratic values. This is the oxygen on which we all depend. Whatever you think about our political system, it’s the best for free and flourishing non-governmental organisations. Of course, we must still call out politicians and parties that threaten key freedoms.

Second, we must get our house in order. Our sector can appear to be sleepwalking towards irrelevance and ill-repute, and we need to respond with vigour and originality, not more of the same. The opportunity here for renewal is the Office for Civil Society review this year. The question is, will we take it?

Back to where I started. I think there are reasonable odds that in 20 years' time, we won’t see something we recognise as a strong, viable third sector. While some of this is out of our hands, much of it is down to us.

So what are we going to do?

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives

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