Promoting the sector as a public service provider and getting it more involved in shaping welfare policy are the top two priorities for Anne McGuire in her new role as the Government's first adviser on third sector innovation.
McGuire says the role, announced last month, will allow her more freedom than her previous ministerial posts, which included periods as minister for disabled people and a Scottish Office minister.
"One of the advantages of being an adviser to the Cabinet Office is that I can be less constrained in some of my thinking," she says. "An adviser is not a decision-maker."
But 'innovation' might be misleading - she says not all of the sector's ideas are as new as they might seem. "The questions of independence and control for service-users and tailoring services to the individual are becoming part of the way government agencies see things now," she says. "But 20 years ago we were trying to do that with the people who came to us through government employment programmes."
McGuire speaks from experience. Before becoming an MP, she had a career in the sector that started working with young care-leavers and ended with a period as deputy director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.
She had qualified as a teacher of history and modern studies, but says a shortage of teaching jobs at the time prompted her move into the voluntary sector. "I never regretted it," she says.
At a series of seminars next month to gather evidence of good practice in the sector, she will look first at health, children's and schools services, and the justice system. She will talk to commissioners and service-users to identify "enablers and barriers", she says.
"Government and the sector both have gaps in their knowledge about how the other operates," she says. "We think that because we have meetings with each other we understand the processes and structures of each other's sectors, but that can be a barrier."
She says her work will not duplicate that of the Third Sector Advisory Body, a 12-strong panel headed by Baroness Pitkeathley that was set up this year to advise ministers on what the sector wants. "We need to pull together the work being done by other groups to look at the wider context of public service reform, which is where the Cabinet Office is keen."
Is there any real difference between Labour and the Conservatives on the third sector? "The Conservatives have discovered the sector in the past year or so, but I'm not sure if they have totally thought through how to build the relationship," she says. "But that's an issue for them."