Editorial: The search for a sector by any other name

Stephen Cook, editor

During one of the summer's parties, a genial third sector figure could be heard, glass in hand, making an enthusiastic case for the word 'third' to be replaced in general parlance by the word 'first'.

His argument was that we need to escape the inevitable association with 'third place' and even 'third rate' and emphasise that the sector is invariably in the vanguard of social progress. The same argument is well developed from another angle in this week's lead letter, overleaf, from David Robinson of Community Links.

'The third sector' is indeed a drab name that few in the wider world readily recognise, not least because nobody talks about the private sector as the 'first sector' or the public sector as the 'second'. In some ways it's a shame that Ed Miliband's new domain in the Cabinet Office was christened the Office of the Third Sector. It was probably felt that it was better to use and thus boost a relatively well-established name than to invent something new or use something even more unfamiliar and obscure, such as the term government has used a lot in recent years, 'voluntary and community sector' or VCS.

The same thorny question of nomenclature was raised again last week by governance guru Linda Laurance, who was concerned that the term 'third sector' implied a pecking order that might suit some in the corridors of power but does nothing to reflect modern reality or help the sector's advance. She's right, of course, as was our genial partygoer.

So what can be done about this? The term 'first sector' is a nice idea, but let's face it - it'll never fly. What's wrong with plain 'voluntary sector'? One objection might be that it perpetuates a notion that clings on in the public mind but many want to dispel - that everyone who does anything in the sector is a volunteer. The term 'non-governmental organisation' or NGO is widely recognised and has the virtue of including both charities and other not-for-profit forms, but it has probably become too closely associated with overseas aid organisations. And the phrase 'not for profit' makes a lot of people wince about Americanisms and definition by the negative.

'Beyond profit', which is favoured by Geraldine Peacock, the former chair of the Charity Commission, could still be a concept too far. The debate should continue. But isn't 'not-for-profit sector' the best contender?

It may contain a negative, but it's a comprehensible and increasingly popular notion.

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