What’s in a Sector?

Recently I spoke to somebody in the voluntary sector who said the following:

 “I don’t think there should be money for the voluntary sector. I think there should be money for working in areas like mental health, regardless of what sort of organisation you are.”

My initial reaction to this statement was surprise. Of course there should be funding for the voluntary sector. It’s a sector uniquely placed to deliver services to the people who need them.

But in what way is the sector uniquely placed? Does it matter that an organisation is a voluntary one, rather than a private or a public one? Would it, as my interviewee was suggesting, be more useful to think about areas of work rather than sectors? These are questions that, as someone relatively new to the voluntary sector, I think are important to consider.

The following week I attended a Voluntary Action History Society lecture by David Billis, who has written for many years on the voluntary sector and organisational theory. Under his model, organisations fit into distinct spheres of the public, private and voluntary sector, with distinct characteristics, cultures, ways of working. Where they deviate from these characteristics, they become ‘hybrid’ organisations, fitting into an overlap between the separate spheres. This deviation might be caused by pressure for an organisation to act in a different way, or by the pursuit of new areas of work that haven’t traditionally fallen under a particular sphere, or by other factors that impact on a core mission or means.

This theme continued during the second lecture of the week, an ESRC Festival of Social Science and Interchange event in Liverpool. Dr. Lindsey Metcalf talked about her qualitative research into marketization of the sector, and attitudes towards it, particularly in terms of organisational governance.  In Dr. Metcalf’s research, some saw it as a threat, others saw it as inevitable – an adaptation that had to be made.

Again, this would be an example of Billis’ hybridization process, one that erodes the boundaries and sense of distinction around the separate sectors. And there are plenty of other examples of local authorities transferring services to social enterprises, and the private sector both competing with and driving change within the voluntary sector, that also can be seen as blurring these boundaries.

Then, finally, there was this week’s reading material, courtesy of Rob Macmillan. He takes a slightly different view to Billis. He questions why this sector is so keen to prove its distinctiveness. He suggests that it is ‘something to do with establishing ‘room’ to exist in a competitive and contested field of struggle’ (2012). This ‘contested field’ might be related to a number of areas. An organisation might identify as a mental health organisation, as my friend at the beginning did, and thus exist in the field of mental health. Or it might see itself as part of the field of infrastructure, or young people, or criminal justice or whatever area it might work in. And it might at times identify as part of a voluntary sector field.

This model allows us to think about distinctiveness between voluntary organisations, as well as between different sectors. The variety in different structures, systems and service users can be captured. For me it also refocusses thought onto what an organisation provides, rather than its identity, which might be a scary thing for those whose identity is under threat. It might also be scary for those resistant to current developments towards a service provision ‘marketplace’. I think there is much unique in what voluntary organisations do, and how they do it (and there’s another question somewhere about the myriad of ‘under-the-radar’ community and voluntary groups that might identify just with their own local context, rather than with a sector or formal field), but considering how they relate to other organisations, whether in a separate sphere or a field of activity is useful for me in terms of considering why we need to be unique.

Any thoughts welcome!

For better-formed thoughts, see:

Billis, David, Hybrid Organisations and the Third Sector: Challenges for Practice, Theory and Policy (Palgrave, 2010)

Macmillan, Rob, ”Distinction’ in the Third Sector’, Voluntary Sector Review, vol.4:1 (2013), pp.39-54, also available here.

…and with apologies to Lindsey Metcalf, who I cannot find a reference for, but is on twitter here!


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