Employment patterns and work organisation in the third sector

The third sector is marked by the mixed presence of entrepreneurial and social elements. Looking at it as an economic phenomenon means to focus on the possibility to create new employment opportunities, to strengthen the economic growth, to support the production of social services, to provide occasions to experiment innovative and flexible forms of work organisation. According to this - it can be defined the “economic view” - the third sector is essentially the way to fight the unemployment produced by the current jobless growth and to find alternative productive systems between the State and the market, once (even partially) accepted their failure.

Although this approach is broadly diffused, it seems to be a reductive interpretation of the role the third sector plays in the social system. Indeed its relevance is not just in the economic features or potentials, but in the combination, as already said, of economic and social elements. 

The principle of solidarity is at the basis of all the experiences in the field of social economy and it is therefore the key factor under which each analysis regarding this world should be conducted. This leads to the second view - the “social view” - useful to look at the third sector also as provider of social services and as the only way to meet unsatisfied social needs, which are characterised by a high degree of differentiation and are thought and “produced” according to the beneficiaries’ necessities. 

Thus, solidarity on the one hand, and the need to adapt supply to demand on the other hand, are transferred into the structures of nonprofit organisations by the adoption of democratic and participative internal rules and are reflected in the forms of work, especially by a pronounced flexibility and motivation of workers.

These elements seem to give to third sector organisations some competitive advantages in respect of the “for profit enterprises” but, at the same time, define a very peculiar operative framework not easy to be understood just using the traditional schemes and parameters. In fact the dynamism requested by the market makes difficult to balance the different variables by the adoption of the appropriate internal policies.

On the one hand the set of basic principles characterising a third sector organisation – solidarity, self-help, mutualism – leads to the presence of:
  1. democracy and participation;
  2. spontaneous flexibility;
  3. the (above defined) strong voluntary action.

On the other hand the ever more pressing competition on the market and the continuos pursuing efficiency in a just-economic sense, based only on the reduction of costs, let emerge the risk that the typical for-profit operative structures are adopted during a slow and hidden internal process. If this happens the three operative trends underlined before will be substituted by the following:
  1. hierarchy;
  2. demanded flexibility;
  3. the (above defined) weak voluntary action.

Sometimes it seems that this trade-off - between the basic principles and the need to be on the market, see also the following figure - is the major reason why third sector organisations have a crisis connected to their growth. Finding the balance between these two forces should be the fundamental goal of the third sector and promoting policies to spur this should be the goal of a National Government interested in the development of the social economy.

It is evident that the situation of work in the third sector is connected in many ways with the general situation of the labour market, generally asking for more flexible and temporary forms of work. Nevertheless, the only real solution is finding the balance-point between third sector peculiarities and a satisfying standard of workers’ protection. In fact, the dynamism and the informality of third sector’s working organisation are not only key factors to grant the effectiveness of the action or elements that are indispensable to the organisations’ survival. 

They are also an expression of freedom, of a better work environment, and of the experimentation possibility. At the same time it is not possible to conceive that the rights of workers can be derogated, even if they are satisfied and gratified workers, or that the lack of protection is a price that must be paid to reach the fixed goal. Otherwise, two are the risks. 

The first one is that talking about the possibility for the third sector to provide new employment opportunities can become a “non sense”, spurring only the creation of non-work, intended as bad-work, not protected or not sustained by strong social and economic basis. The second one is the creation of a deep and irremediable contradiction between the spirit and the essence of the social economy (social aims, democratic organisation, economic transparency, non-profit purposes), and its practises. 

The third sector is surely needed by the society for its growing social and economic role, but it is needed at its higher potential, therefore it will be ever more important to find the appropriate forms and schemes to let its typical organisational freedom free from abuses and misunderstandings.

by Alessandro Messina
Economie et humanisme, Janvier 1999, n. 347