The magazine that has grown with the sector

John Plummer charts the steady rise of Third Sector and the title's longest-serving writer looks back on the peculiarities of life before Haymarket.

Third Sector: the early years
Third Sector: the early years

It began on 8 October 1992 as a 16-page fortnightly with stories about the proposed National Lottery, cuts to the overseas aid budget and Oxfam's 50th birthday celebrations.

Fifteen years on and 500 editions later, it is a national brand consisting of a weekly magazine containing 48 or more pages, a website that is updated daily, conferences, events, forums and awards. Like the charity world itself, Third Sector has grown significantly over the past decade and a half.

Founding editor Sandra Greaves, a former volunteer for the Terrence Higgins Trust, started the magazine because, she says, "the time was right to start taking charities seriously. There was a need for a publication that looked at the sector from a business point of view."

The magazine acquired a fresh look in 1998 when times were changing under the Labour government. "There was enormous optimism and a feeling that the sector had its foot in the door in a way that it didn't with the Conservatives," says then editor Toby Butler. But many of yesterday's concerns remain. "There was a slightly queasy feeling about how corporate charities were going to get."

Julie Pybus, editor from 1999 to 2001, recalls how slow the Conservatives were to wake up to charities. "I was invited to interview William Hague about the voluntary sector soon after he became Conservative leader, but it soon became apparent that he knew very little about it," she says. "I didn't get much of use out of the interview at all."

Third Sector's most significant development occurred in 2002, when Haymarket acquired the title from Arts Publishing International. A redesign and dummy were produced, focus groups held and the first weekly issue put together in less than three weeks so the magazine could go head-to-head with Charity Week, now defunct.

Third Sector is now read by 80,000 chief executives, trustees and managers in the voluntary sector. This year, the magazine relaunched its online presence and started providing daily news.

 

They were the best of times, despite the camembert

 

Third Sector was not always put together within the gleaming, mirrored windows of Haymarket Towers. For its first 10 years, the magazine was owned by a small publishing company and reached the desks of 5,000 or so charity managers every other Wednesday. Or most of the time it did.

I joined in 2000, towards the end of the independent era. News International it wasn't. The magazine's home was a small office alongside the Regent's Canal in London's Bethnal Green. It was a relaxed working culture, especially in terms of the exact day you got paid each month. Unaccountably, a bag of two year-old camembert hung outside the window. The office printer was actually owned by someone who ran the company next door. Sometimes it was turned off an hour before we went to press. That the first 250 or so editions of Third Sector reached the public was a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

Brand awareness was not what it is now. Reporters calling people often had to repeat the name of the magazine, and even then some still didn't get it. Reporters kept a list of titles we were mistaken for. Third Sex magazine was one; Bird Sector another. There was even Bird Sexer. The best was an animal charity that was under the impression I was phoning from Fur Detector magazine.

But the magazine did establish a reputation in the third sector. One sector leader once described it as "The Daily Mail of the voluntary sector", which might be a compliment. The magazine campaigned for full cost recovery in contracts with local authorities and for a single grant application form for charities applying to trusts and foundations. Its coverage of the 'Little Gidding' case helped to secure the creation of the independent complaints reviewer for the Charity Commission and, ultimately, the Charities Tribunal.

There were also scoops, often after tip-offs from the late Luke FitzHerbert. One story concerned rumours that the Government was to set up a review of the voluntary sector's role in the delivery of public services. Another reporter got a story about the demise of London's largest community transport charity on the bus to work.

The magazine had a more colourful band of letter writers than now. One, whose missives were rarely printed, often accused the Charity Commission of being "worse than Al Capone".

Third Sector also offered the chance to interview some fascinating people. I met Michael Young, who set up more than 50 voluntary organisations, a year before he died. I asked him why he didn't go into politics, having been responsible for writing the 1945 Labour election manifesto. He replied that, unlike his friend Denis Healey, he was too shy.

Working for a small company afforded great editorial freedom, apart from one short-lived attempt to get rid of the magazine's subeditor on the grounds that reporters should adopt the "Japanese style of working" and "get it right first time". Headlines were a chance to experiment. When the abrasive Louise Casey, then homelessness czar, annoyed the sector with another of her unsubtle comments, Third Sector responded with "Soup Dragon Drops Clanger" (if you're under 25, you're unlikely to get this). "Poop scoop scooter troop avoid park gloop with dog poo coup" was probably more fun to write than it was to read.

The era of the old Third Sector ended in March 2002 when Haymarket bought the title, turned it into a weekly and boosted its readership by about 15,000. Third Sector is now recognised as one of the best trade magazines in the country. But in its previous incarnation, the magazine provided a great apprenticeship and a product that, although rough at the edges, had intelligence and charm.

- Mathew Little

 

Landmarks

 

100th Edition: 14 November 1996

In Third Sector: Greenpeace director Lord Melchett is labelled a 'fatcat' by The Independent on Sunday for earning £40,000 a year. Julian Oxley steps down as director general of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association after losing the trustees' confidence. The charity had recently granted him and other staff interest-free loans for moving home.

Elsewhere: Democrat Bill Clinton beats Bob Dole to win a second term as US president, and Robson and Jerome's What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? knocks the Spice Girls off number one in the charts.

200th Edition: 25 January 2001

In Third Sector: Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn agrees an out-of-court settlement with Barnardo's for saying the charity was staffed by "perverts". He was unhappy with a teaching pack endorsed by three government departments. Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, predicts that by 2010 "the general public will understand the sophisticated and complex charity world in which fundraisers operate".

Elsewhere: George W Bush is sworn in as the 43rd US president and Sven-Goran Eriksson becomes England's 10th football manager. Seven people set fire to themselves in China's Tiananmen Square and Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson resigns again.

300th Edition: 17 September 2003

In Third Sector: The artist Damien Hirst unveils a 22ft sculpture called Charity, which was inspired by a Spastics Society collection doll. The RNIB celebrates a landmark legal victory when a restaurant owner in Watford is forced to pay £900 compensation to a guide dog owner who was told to leave his dog outside.

Elsewhere: The Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, is stabbed while shopping in a Stockholm department store and later dies. American country music singer Johnny Cash dies aged 71. Where is the Love? by the Black Eyed Peas goes to number one.

400th Edition: 19 October 2005

In Third Sector: The Red Cross trains 60 staff to help stamp out bullying within the charity. Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh is named Ernst & Young's Social Entrepreneur of the Year. Avian Flu Action is set up to prepare the country for bird flu and the Twickenham and Thames Valley Bee-Keepers Association receives a £50,000 grant to halt the decline in bees.

Elsewhere: Saddam Hussein appears in court in belligerent mood, charged with crimes against humanity. "I don't answer this so-called court, with all due respect," he tells the judge. Southend pier is destroyed by fire and Daniel Craig is named as the sixth James Bond, despite concerns about his blond hair and average height.

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