There is little empirical evidence to demonstrate why the voluntary sector is unique or distinctive, according to a new discussion paper.
Is the third sector so special? What is it worth?, published today by the Third Sector Research Centre, is the third of five discussion papers being produced as part of its Third Sector Futures Dialogues series.
Each paper is intended to start a debate about the big issues facing the voluntary sector in England.
In this paper, Angus McCabe, a senior research fellow at the centre, says: "Received wisdom and, often, experience, tells us that voluntary and community organisations are unique – in their values, their closeness to communities, or their commitment to social justice.
"So how can we demonstrate the sector’s worth? Many organisations have focused on survival in hard times. But to remain relevant, organisations need to demonstrate that they have value beyond a monetary one. They need to show that they are special and how."
The paper asks if the sector’s uniqueness is being threatened by professionalisation, contracting with the state or the development of market-like features.
It says that moves to measure impact are welcome, but monetary systems of measurement, such as social return on investment, might be limited in what they can evaluate.
Such impact measurements tend to focus on services where there is a real or assumed saving to the Treasury, such as reducing re-offending or getting people into work, the report says.
It goes on to question whether issues like social justice, fairness or belonging can be reduced to a financial concept of social value.
Each of the five subjects in the series is being considered over the course of about a month through online debates and seminars in London before a ‘sounding panel’ of voluntary sector experts, chaired by Pete Alcock, director of the TSRC, meet to discuss the findings.
The sounding board is meeting four times over the course of the project and will produce a final report in April.