A sector by any other name(s) would smell as sweet…or sweeter, perhaps

Labelling things and the language we use are important. So is the vast network of organisations — large, small and everywhere in between — across the UK that make up ‘civil society’ (something to which I will refer as ‘the sector’ in this blog).

So, then, why do we have so many interchangeable names for these organisations and what real consequences is this having for the sector (and our public services too)?

This isn’t a new conversation-starter, I’m sure. This is purely an attempt to unpick my thoughts and frustrations around this. It’s also intended to see if anyone has any thoughts on a few questions around this:

  • Does it matter?
  • Is it time to have a better name or label?
  • Should we see ourselves as everything that’s not the private, public or education sector, or do we need to break up?

So, what am I talking about here?

I am someone who has worked in the sector for a long time. Sometimes I have been an employee in organisations within the sector. Other times I have been working with or supporting organisations as a freelancer. I have also been in rooms where I was the ‘representative of the sector’ alongside people who were from different sectors.

In that time, I have heard the following terms used for ‘the sector’:

  • Voluntary sector
  • Third sector
  • Not-for-profit sector
  • Social sector
  • Civil society
  • Charity sector
  • VCSE (which incorporates social enterprises; the ‘SE’ bit)
  • Community sector

Each and every one of these terms seems to elicit different responses from people. Furthermore, people outside of the sector (in my experience) tend to refer to it as a group of like-minded people or sort of doing the same thing.

There’s a lot tied up and implied through these names. Some of the labels refer to organisational structure/governance (e.g. charity, social enterprise), while others focus more on a broad sense of purpose (e.g. social, community). A couple even imply a sense of what’s left over or ‘the other’, such as third and not-for-profit.

Even as a sector insider, this all confuses the shit out of me. And my hunch is that it confuses others too: in the sector, the general public and those (who should be) trying to work with the sector.

Recently, my confusion channelled itself in to a Twitter poll. In the least scientific — and most echo-chamberey — form of seeking others’ opinions, this is what happened…

Testing people’s preferences on Twitter for what they call the sector

Note: Twitter polls only seem to allow four options to be included.

For me, the thing that stood out from the poll results was that there isn’t really a clear result. This just says that we all use different things.

Far more interesting, however, were some of the conversations that happened around this. You can read that here. Some of these conversations have helped me to crystallise my thoughts on this matter…

So what?

Perhaps I’m nitpicking with all of this. It wouldn’t be the first time!

But I do feel strongly that these terms, the confusion around them and the inconclusiveness of which name is best is having very real, tangible consequences for the survival of organisations in the sector and the UK’s chances of having the best possible public services. That may be a bold statement, but here’s my rationale…

  1. Squeezing people out

Having a catch all term for everyone means that sometimes it’s only the loudest voices that get heard in consultation, co-production and service design. Support, funding and infrastructure can end up being tailored for those who have the capacity to be part of conversations outside of the pressure of day to day delivery. Often this means that some organisations can no longer survive because their needs aren’t met and the system shifts beneath their feet in a direction that they have not been given the opportunity to determine.

2. Communicating value and opportunities to/from the sector

As someone who now works as a freelancer with the sector, it’s very hard to know how to frame a project, particularly when that project is about providing support or capacity-building to organisations. If people don’t instantly recognise an offer as for them because of the language used, is it dismissed and the opportunity gone? The same applies the other way — i.e. how an organisation from the sector describes itself to give context to what it offers.

In my experience, people within the sector are quite tribal* too — by place, cause, or type of organisation — and this can also exacerbate perceptions about whether a thing on offer is relevant. This is also related to the point above — one size does not fit all.

3. Setting expectations in partnership working

This is a big one for me. The obvious example is that the term ‘voluntary sector’ implies that its organisations will do stuff for free; that their expertise is somehow confined to free labour. This must be rejected.

I have seen this first hand in the dynamics of public-sector-funded projects where someone recognises or has been told that ‘we must engage with the local voluntary sector’. At its worst, this means inviting a ‘voluntary sector representative’ (often someone from a local arm of a big national charity) to be the sole voice of the sector while being outnumbered by others.

Even at its best, when the unique value of the voluntary sector’s relationships and its expertise in brokering conversations are recognised, other sectors sometimes don’t recognise this as ‘delivery’ in its own right — i.e. something that should be paid for. In other words, the relationships are exploited for free to shape something that is then put out to tender at a later date, often with criteria for delivery that exclude the voluntary sector organisations who have already been involved.

I believe that the word ‘voluntary’ contributes to this.

4. The sector’s place in society and what we stand for

Third sector implies it comes after the first and second sectors (which are..?).

Not-for-profit doesn’t say what it does do, and it assumes that financial return is the only measure of value.** This seriously jars me. How can we continue to describe something so necessary in terms of a deficit of any nature?

These are powerful and influential ways of describing the sector. They shape our subconscious perceptions of the general pecking order and what’s important to us. In turn, this feeds into how well integrated the sector is into ‘the system’ and the societal influence it has on shaping our day to day services, experiences and togetherness.

I’ve nearly finished…

So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot, I reckon. And that name — or should I say ‘those names’? — is having a profound impact on the sector, those who work with and around it (like me), public perceptions of societal value and how the services on which we all rely are shaped in the most appropriate way.

I think we should talk more about this. Any thoughts, anyone (whatever names you prefer)?

*This certainly isn’t a criticism. I recognise that I operate in a few close-knit groups myself : )

**I am not against profit in the sense suggested through ‘not-for-profit’, believe it or not, but I do have views on what it should do — that’s for another time.




Freelancer. Data and insight strategy through open working. Always social purpose and having conversations. Founded Sheffield Data for Good and Data for Action.

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Tom French

Tom French

Freelancer. Data and insight strategy through open working. Always social purpose and having conversations. Founded Sheffield Data for Good and Data for Action.

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