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The voluntary sector (also non-profit sector) is the sphere of social activity undertaken by organizations that are for non-profit[1] and non-governmental. This sector is also called the third sector, in reference to the public sector and the private sector. Civic sector is another term for the sector, emphasizing the sector's relationship to civil society.


Country-specific definitions


Discourse on the "third sector" began in the 1970s in France as a result of the crisis in the welfare state.[2]


In Japan since the 1980s, the third sector (第三セクター daisan sekutā?) refers to joint corporations invested both by the public sector and private sector.

United Kingdom

The Cabinet Office of the British government has an Office of the Third Sector that defines the "third sector" as "the place between State and (the) private sector."[3]


In India this sector is commonly called "joint sector", and includes the industries run in partnership by the state and Private Sector. In more wider sense the initial investment is done by the state and later the handling is done by the private sector. But, here the private sector is responsible to the state when it comes to handling.

Significance to society and the economy

The presence of a large non-profit sector is sometimes seen as an indicator of a healthy economy in local and national financial measurements.[4] With a growing number of non-profit organizations focused on social services, the environment, education and other unmet needs throughout society, the nonprofit sector is increasingly central to the health and well-being of society.[5] Expert Peter Drucker suggests that the nonprofit sector provides an excellent outlet for a variety of society's labor and skills. [6]

In 1976, Daniel Bell predicted that the third sector would become the predominant sector in society, as the knowledge class overcame the effects of the private sector.[7] This presently holds true in a number of European countries. According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, the Netherlands has the largest third sector of 20 countries across Europe.[8] In Ireland the non-profit sector accounts for 8.8% of GDP. [9] In Sweden, the nonprofit sector is attributed with fostering a nationwide social change towards progressive economic, social and cultural policies[10], while in Italy the third sector is increasingly viewed as a primary employment source for the entire country.[11]

In the United States approximately 10% of GDP is attributable to the third sector. Donating to private religious organizations remains the most popular American cause, and all religious organizations are entirely privately funded because the government is limited from establishing or prohibiting a religion under the First Amendment.[12]


There have been long-ranging arguments regarding the financial accountability of the nonprofit sector throughout Western society.[13] There is also ongoing concern whether the nonprofit sector will unequally draw retiring workers from the private sector as the currently large Baby Boomers age.[14] Development of the third sector, it is argued, is linked to restructuring of the welfare state and further globalization of that process through neo-liberal strategies of Washington consensus[15].

See also


  1. PotÀuček, M. (1999) Not Only the Market: The Role of the Market, Government, and the Civic Sector. Central European University Press. p.34.
  2. Zaleski, Pawel (2008). Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality. Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 50.
  3. UK definition of third sector
  4. Verdier, D. (2002) Moving Money: Banking and Finance in the Industrialized World. Cambridge University Press. p. 145.
  5. (2007) "Laban: Volunteering Canterbury - 2007 Awards", 6/20/07. Retrieved 6/26/07.
  6. (2007) "Drucker Wisdom: Leadership and the CEO." The Blake Project. 6/26/07. Retrieved 6/26/07.
  7. Bell, D. (1976) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: a venture in social forecasting. Basic Books. p. 147.
  8. Evers, A. and Laville, J. (2004) The Third Sector in Europe. Edward Elgar Publishing. p. 150.
  9. Building a caring civil society in Ireland:
  10. Muffels, J. (2001) Solidarity in Health and Social Care in Europe. Springer. p. 90.
  11. Antonelli, G. and De Liso, N. (2004) European Economic Integration and Italian Labour Policies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 228.
  12. Christopher Eaton Gunn Third-sector Development: Making Up for the Market (Cornell University Press, 2004) 0801488818, 9780801488818 Partially Accessible Copy on Google Books(accessed July 6, 2009 on Google Book Search)
  13. Gettler, L. (2007) "Non-profits can be more accountable," The Age. 5/31/07. Retrieved 6/25/07.
  14. The Conference Board. (2007) "Non-Profit Firms Face Many Challenges and Some Opportunities With Advent of Retirement of Baby-Boom Generation." Earth Times. 5/31/07. Retrieved 6/25/07.
  15. Pawel Zaleski Global Non-governmental Administrative System: Geosociology of the Third Sector, [in:] Gawin, Dariusz & Glinski, Piotr [ed.]: "Civil Society in the Making", IFiS Publishers, Warszawa 2006