Beyond Nonprofits: Re-conceptualizing the Third Sector
The idea of a “third sector” beyond the arenas of the state and the market is probably one of the most perplexing concepts in modern political and social discourse, encompassing as it does a tremendous diversity of institutions and behaviors that only relatively recently have been perceived in public or scholarly discourse as a distinct sector, and even then with grave misgivings. Initial work on this concept focused on what is still widely regarded as its institutional core, the vast array of private, nonprofit institutions (NPIs), and the volunteer as well as paid workers they mobilize and engage. These institutions share a crucial characteristic that makes it feasible to differentiate from for-profit enterprises: the fact that they are prohibited from distributing any surplus they generate to their investors, directors, or stakeholders and therefore presumptively serve some broader public interest. Many European scholars have considered this conceptualization too narrow; however, arguing that cooperatives, mutual societies, and, in recent years, “social enterprises” as well as social norms should also be included. However, this broader concept has remained under-conceptualized in reliable operational terms. This article corrects this short-coming and presents a consensus operational re-conceptualization of the third sector fashioned by a group of scholars working under the umbrella of the European Union’s Third Sector Impact Project. This re-conceptualization goes well beyond the widely recognized definition of NPIs included in the UN Handbook on Nonprofit Institutions in the System of National Accounts by embracing as well some, but not all, of these additional institutions and forms of direct individual activity, and does so in a way that meets demanding criteria of comparability, operationalizability, and potential for integration into official statistical systems.