International Repository of Third Sector Networks and Trends (IRTSNT)

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Project date: Proposal submitted in 2013 (rejected)

Project proposal under the European Commission 7th Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration

Full title: The International Repository of Third Sector Networks and Trends: a longitudinal and comparative network analysis of sector change, innovation and success in Europe and beyond (IRTSNT)


University of Groningen (RUG) Netherlands
Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) Switzerland
Union of International Associations (UIA) Belgium
Central European University (CEU) Hungary


The International Repository of Third Sector Networks and Trends project proposes a longitudinal and comparative network analysis of sector change, innovation and success in Europe's international third sector and beyond. The focus is on international third sector organizations; those organizations working beyond the borders of their countries of origin only.

The central research question: How do long-term developmental trends in Europe’s international third sector compare to non-European international third sector organizations (1948-2012), to what extent do these trends reflect processes of convergence and hybridization, what organizations are most successful, and how can these trends and successes be explained?

The project will create a repository of digitalized information of 32 editions of the Yearbook of International Organizations. The information consists of detailed information of over 57.000 international third sector organizations from 1948-2012 about their foundation years and location, their activities, aims, funding sources and inter-organizational relationships on an annual basis. Hence, the data allows unique time-variant approach since one can track changes in these traits per year, so that trends and developments through time can be analyzed. Cross-country and continent comparison is possible, since the organizations present in the data are based in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. The analysis of the data will focus on understanding organizational change, innovation, survival, growth and financial success. The main theoretical approach in this study will be based on organizational network theory and analysis, next to more traditional explanations of organizational change and success. Through this project, it is possible to gain better understanding of the historical development of Europe's international third sector. By doing so, the project will also contribute to increased conceptual clarification of what the third sector entails.

More details may be found in the links below.


The main objectives of the proposed project are, aligned to the call of the work program

  1. To provide a detailed overview of long-term developmental trends in the size, organizational features1 and problem focus of Europe’s international third sector (1948-2012), in relation to other continents (Asia, Africa and the Americas)2
  2. To provide longitudinal and comparative insight in the determinants of organization change and problem focus change (innovation in aim setting) in Europe’s international third sector and the international third sector on other continents (1948-2012)
  3. To provide longitudinal and comparative insights in the determinants of organization success – defined as organizational survival and financial growth – of Europe’s international third sector and the third sector on other continents (148-2012)
  4. Based on in-depth literature study and the knowledge generated through objectives 1-3: to create further conceptual clarification of what the third sector entails in Europe and other parts of the world

Conceptual premises and considerations

Our project starts from the following premises

Conceptual debates

The third sector - also often referred to as civil society, the voluntary, tertiary or the nonprofit sector - is regularly defined as what is not, in that it is non-governmental and nonprofit in nature (cf. Heyse 2007). The third sector is said to be located between the state, the market and primary communities, where people strive for the public good in the private sphere. Since this space between the market, the state and primary communities is very heterogeneous, there is a wide diversity of organizations that are perceived to belong to the third sector, such as social movements, community organizations, labor unions, voluntary associations, sport clubs, large international nongovernmental organizations in development and humanitarian aid, and even social enterprises (Frumkin, 2002).

There is a multitude of definitions of the third sector, as well as discussions as to what extent the third sector is really a separate sector or a hybrid of various other sectors (see for a review of the literature, Corry 2010). This project aims to contribute to this debate by providing more clarity in the conceptualization of the third sector. We begin the project with a working definition of the third sector, which will be constantly scrutinized throughout the research process: Third sector organizations have some formal character, are value driven - i.e. have a mission to care for relatively unknown others – and are based on some degree of voluntarism (Corry, 2010; Brandsen et al., 2005). The ‘unknown other’ can mean a distant group that one really does not know (such as an NGO providing aid to Syrian refugees) to a less distant group such as a community one is part of.

Continuous differentiation of third sector tasks

Third sector organizations are often presented to be the solution to many problems: they are believed to be able to complement, substitute or countervail state or market organizations, thereby compensating for market or state failure (Frumkin 2002, Corry 2010). For example, third sector organizations would meet ‘residual demand’ not covered by state organizations or are the logical providers of services that are characterized by information asymmetry, because for profit organizations can take advantage of this asymmetry (Hansmann, 1987, 1990; see also James, 1990). In addition, third sector organizations are claimed to be capable to ‘work easily with or complement the resources of family and informal networks’ (Douglas, 1987:43) and to provide solutions to free-rider problems that the state often experiences. Third sector organizations also provide the state an alternative to deal with diversity, to minimize bureaucratization, to enhance experimentation, and to address insoluble, political and sensitive social problems (Anheier, 1990).

In other words, third sector functions can be roughly divided into a political and instrumental dimension (Fisher, 1998). On the one hand, nonprofit activity can be perceived as instrumental: it comprises of clusters of organizations that provide support and services which the state or the market does not provide at all or not as well (James, 1989). On the other hand, nonprofits can also have a political function as a countervailing power to the market or/and the state, adding to the creation of a system of checks and balances in society (Gordenker & Weiss, 1997). Hence they help to ‘strengthen civil society and hence democracy by improving interest articulation and representation’ (Clarke, 1998:50); represent ‘the institutionalization of existing patterns of political contestation between civil society and the state and within civil society itself’ (Clarke, 1998:50); or act ‘a collection of individuals engaged in a struggle for respect and recognition as human beings with dignity’ (Fisher, 1997:446).

Societal processes and the growth of the third sector

The plethora of activities that third sector organizations can employ manifest itself in the continuous expansion of the third sector (Iriye, 1999). For example, the number of third sector organizations has increased from 832 in 1951 to 16,208 in 1990 to over 30.000 in 2011 (Yearbook of International Organization 1989-1990 in Beigbeder (1991), Yearbook of International Organizations 2011). This expansion is often related to various societal, political and economic developments (Salamon et al 2003). Societal changes, such as an increase in alphabetism and the globalization of communication, enhanced the possibility for speedy and worldwide (non-governmental) organization and action. Economic growth facilitated the rise of a commercial, professional, ‘bourgeois’ class. This created material improvement and a group of people capable to organize non-governmental action in the Western and non-Western world.

In addition, various economic and political ‘crises’ have contributed to a growing demand of third sector organizations (Lewis, 2001). Especially the crisis in the welfare state, in development, as well as of communism, are important in this respect. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a crisis in the western welfare state originating in disappointment about the effectiveness and efficiency of the public sector (DiMaggio & Anheier, 1990; Salamon et al 2003). This resulted in ‘a neoliberal climate of disenchantment with the state’ (Clarke, 1998:37) which led to the privatization and marketization of government tasks. This neoliberal climate also spread to the development sector, which was confronted with a lagging economic growth in Third World countries. This was blamed, among other things, on the ineffectiveness of bilateral and multilateral development aid programs implemented by national governments. Third sector organizations were believed to be better capable in reaching the poor and to be more cost-effective because of their flexibility, their specific expertise, and their small-scale approach to development (Gordenker & Weiss, 1997). Also, the crisis of communism, highlighted by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, led to a decrease of state support for social security arrangements in former Eastern Europe. The void filled with market initiatives and the emergence of civil society actors in these former communist states, which in turn were funded by Western Third sector organizations.

From growth and task differentiation to boundary blurring, hybridization & convergence?

The expansion of the sector and the differentiation of third sector tasks, driven by various political and societal developments as elaborated above, was accompanied with changes in the structures, aims and activities of third sector organizations. These changes are said to be induced by key stakeholders of third sector organizations, such as the state, who asked for greater efficiency and accountability (Hwang & Powell 2009). Professionalization, especially by means of adopting for-profit management practices and hiring management professionals, is deemed to be the key to achieve enhanced efficiency and accountability. The sector responded to these pressures by adopting business models relating to, for example, human resource management, performance management and strategic planning. These professionalization processes, through the adoption of for-profit practices, are assumed to result in hybridization and convergence due to the blurring of boundaries between the third sector, the market and the state (Bode 2008, Kramer 2001, Battilana & Dorado 2010). A slightly different explanation for convergence is provided by neo-institutional thinkers who state that the public, private and non profit sector are converging because the world in general is modernizing and rationalizing, which leads to pressures for professionalization and bureaucratization of not only third sector organizations, but all organizations globally (Drori et al, 2006).

The idea of boundary blurring and convergence assumes that the third sector used to be a clearly delineated sector next to the state and market logic (Lounsbury 2007). Put differently, there used to be a sector with clear nonprofit goals, pro-social and altruistic activities, based on voluntary and egalitarian structures that is increasingly incorporating market and state aims, bureaucratic and competitive structures, and commercial and public activities. However, others have argued that the third sector has always been a hybrid (Brandsen et al 2005). This research project taps into this discussion, as we will elaborate below.

Research rationale and questions

If the convergence thesis would hold, the question is valid whether the third sector is still a distinctive field that can be clearly delineated from the market and the state. There is empirical research that confirms that these processes of convergence, boundary blurring and hybridization are indeed taking place, although not in a uniform manner (see, for example, Hwang and Powell 2009). If the third sector cannot so clearly be delineated from other sectors, the question is valid if we then can speak of specific third sector features, and if so, what these are.

This project will take the above discussions about convergence and hybridization as a point of departure to study the historical development of Europe’s international third sector in the years 1948 to 2012 in comparison to other parts of the world (Africa, Asia and the Americas). Third sector organizations are labeled international because they have an international mandate and employ border-crossing activities. The project will study to what extent convergence is really taking place in the sector, and if so (or not), how these processes work and why in particular ways. The overarching research question of this proposed project is:

How do long-term developmental trends in Europe’s international third sector compare to non-European international third sector organizations (1948-2012), to what extent do these trends reflect processes of convergence and hybridization, what organizations are most successful, and how can these trends and successes be explained?

Our research project is subdivided in the following sets of sub questions:

  1. To what extent is Europe’s international third sector experiencing changes in its organizational features (structures, funding basis, relationships and activities) and the problems it focuses on (aim setting), and to what extent do these changes refer to a convergence process in which boundaries blur with the market and the state? How does this compare to trends in the international third sector in other continents?
  2. Given the changes identified in sub question a): Do changes in organizational features and problem focus (aim setting) apply to all international third sector organizations in Europe in all times and places, or are some international third sector organizations more likely to change, in particular times and places? If so, what are the characteristics of these stable and changing organizations, times and places, and to what extent do these characteristics reflect traditional conceptualizations of the third sector (or not)? How does this compare to international third sector organizations in other continents?
  3. How can (diversity in) changes in organizational features and problem focus (aim setting) over time in Europe’s international third sector be explained? How does this compare to causes of (diversity in) changes in non-European international sector organizations?
  4. What organizations in Europe’s international third sector are most successful in terms of organizational survival and expanding resources and how can this be explained? To what extent is organizational change, innovation and boundary blurring or convergence a requirement for organizational survival and success?

Theoretical approach: combining network analysis with organizational sociological theory

The above research questions, which evolved from the call’s topics and questions, are approached from a sociological perspective, with a specific focus on organization sociology. This is a highly suitable perspective because on the one hand the call describes the need for insights in the relationship between societal processes and the development of the third sector in Europe (focusing on the relation between societal macro and sector wide processes), whereas on the other hand, the call asks for research into determinants of trends, success and impact of the numerous organizations in the sector (focusing on changes within organizations and between groups of organizations over time, and their effects on the macro level).

Sociology, and in particular the sub discipline of organization sociology, provides useful theoretical building blocks for such aims. Three influential and complementary research traditions in organization sociology therefore serve as a source of inspiration for this project, i.e. research in 1) organization change; 2) innovation in organizations; and 3) organizational success, in terms of organizational birth, survival and growth (organizational ecology). The above three research traditions will be connected to the project’s overarching theoretical perspective: an organizational network perspective.

All sub questions and research objectives in this project are aiming towards an analysis of convergence in the third sector. Our project adds to current research into sector convergence and hybridization by not only studying to what extent convergence is taking place but also by analyzing how this process works and why this process works in particular ways. Our assumption is that convergence is taking place, but that this is not a homogenous process (cf. Hwang and Powell 2009). In order to explain diversity in convergence processes, we argue that the analysis of social structures in the sector is of importance. In other words, the relationships between the organizations in the sector will help us understand sector change and trends, and diversity in convergence.

Network analysis is highly relevant to explain trends and developments in organizational sectors. Trends are born when one organization influences other organizations in the sector. Network theory is known for its principle of homophily, stating that similar entities are attracted to each other (selection effect) or entities become more alike the more they interact (contagion effect). The latter process may lead to convergence and isomorphism of practices in a sector, such as argued DiMaggio and Powell (1983) and others. The generation and diffusion of trends can also be explained by the structural characteristics of the network relations between organizations involved. These are for example notions of centrality in a network (which is often related to being powerful), or the concept of a ‘structural hole’, i.e. an organization that is a broker between two further separated networks. The innovative concept of ‘structural fold’ has also proven to be a strong explanation for the generation and diffusion of trends. Structural folds refers to overlapping communities of trust that are both cohesive enough to elaborate new concepts, and are diverse enough to recognize recombinant possibilities (Vedres and Stark 2010). A network approach to the questions we study thus provides promising explanatory mechanisms for analyzing developments and trends in Europe’s international third sector (see for an overview, Borgatti & Foster 2003).

Our focus on long-term developmental trends in the third sector is further specified in this project to organizational changes and successes in third sector organizations as well as to an analysis of the sector’s development and growth. We define organizational success in terms of organizational survival and financial growth. In addition, we distinguish between organizational change and innovation in this project. Organizational change refers to changes in third sector organizations’ structures and activities. For example, we speak of organizational change if an organization decides to more narrowly focus on particular activities (i.e. no longer a focus on basic health care but on emergency health care) or to alter the composition of its advisory board. Innovational change refers to the birth and rise of new activities and aims, and even of new organizations. The combined sum of all information about the organizational changes, innovations and successes of the organizations in the sector allows an analysis of the trends in the sector as whole, for example, by providing profiles of organizations that are most likely to survive in this sector or by identifying new developments that potentially could develop into influential trends.

Whereas the network perspective is our main theoretical point of departure of this study, we are sensitive to other explanations of organizational change, innovation and success. For example, organizational change is often explained by external triggers, such as political, societal and economic/financial developments (Daunno et al 2000). Organizational success, survival and growth is often explained by the fit between the organization’s identity and the organizational environment, such as the organization being a generalist or specialist, and the need for either one in the particular environment and time (Hannan et al, 2007). These dimensions will be included in the project.

Based on the above, the conceptual framework of this project looks as follows

Conceptual framework graphic


This research is expected to have the following impacts:

Increased insight in historical trends and organizational traits of Europe’s international third sector

The first expected impact is the increase in information, knowledge and insight in long-term developmental trends Europe’s international third sector and beyond by means of the digitalized Yearbook’s editions. Our project will produce the first study that will provide an overview of the sector’s growth, developments and trends in a longitudinal and comparative perspective for such a long time span (1948 to 2012).

Contribution to enhanced conceptual clarification on what the third sector entails

We expect to contribute to enhanced conceptual clarification of what the third sector entails because our research on the one hand will be guided by conceptual and definitional discussions, and on the other hand will be informed by our empirical research. Both will meet and be mirrored during the research process, which will lead to clearer insight in the question whether traditional conceptualizations of the third sector (still) hold or whether the sector is moving into new directions (in terms of hybridization or convergence) that requires alternative conceptualizations of third sector organizations. Our research facilitates that such alternative conceptualizations can be elaborated on.

Insight in determinants of success & failure in the third sector, related to social and economic impact

The call explicitly asks for insights in reasons for success and failure in the third sector. Our research will provide an answer to that question by focusing on what explains organizational survival in the sector and what explains financial resource expansion in the sector. We will connect the insights we gain to the activities and aims of these organizations, so that we can extrapolate what types of organizations, aims and activities have expanded in the past decades. We contend that both survival and growth are important conditions for societal and economic impact. For example, resource growth does not only mean that third sector organizations have more means to achieve particular aims, but also that they provide an expanding labor market. In addition, we argue that network connectedness is an important indicator for social and economic impact. Hence, the better connected the organizations are, the more they will be capable to survive, grow and have an impact on society. By analyzing survival, growth and network connectedness we can thus provide insight in which types of organizations have most potential for impact.

Options for informed policy making on third sector organizations

Our research has potential to inform policy makers connected to the third sector. For example, our research will analyze to what extent funding diversity influences organizational change, success and survival. For example, one question we will explore is to what extent and how (increased or decreased) public funding of third sector organizations, and diversification of funding resources, influences third sector organizations’ aims, activities, structures, growth and success. We will also provide insights to what extent and how network relationships of third sector organizations with colleagues, EU institutions, and other international organizations are determinants of organizational success. Such research results can be compared to existing policies of the EU and individual member states and can inform future policy discussions.

Increased access and availability to information about the international third sector to researchers

Due to the digitalization of the Yearbook’s editions and UIA’s willingness to make this digitalized information available on request to researchers, this project will contribute to increased access and availability to information about the international third sector on various continents from 1948-2012. In the past, Yearbook editions have been used for academic research purposes, but it has so far been impossible to study the third sector as an organizational field throughout time. Our project will facilitate sector wide analysis and comparison, which can facilitate accumulation of knowledge on the third sector.

Scientific impact

A final important impact is that this project, due to its unique data, will be able to contribute to the latest developments in organization sociology through its focus on networks and structural folds, organizational ecology, innovation and organizational change. The results of this study will therefore not only contribute to increased insight in third sector trends and developments, but also to theoretical and methodological advancement of organization studies as a research domain.


The project’s most important target audiences are researchers, third sector organizations and policy makers. Dissemination of the project’s results will happen through:

  • the consortium’s annual meetings of which parts will be open to relevant policy stakeholders and researchers to attend (see management and coordination)
  • participation in academic and, if relevant, third sector related professional conferences and workshops (for example ARNOVA)
  • publication of papers in academic journals and, if relevant, third sector related professional publications
  • press releases of the most important findings of the research (for example, at the time a PhD student is about to defend the dissertation)
  • an end-of-project workshop to which relevant policy stakeholders and researchers will be invited
  • a collective publication at the end of the project


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The focus thereby will be on the organizations’ structures, activities, funding basis and inter-organizational relationships.

Third sector organizations are labeled international if they have an international mandate and employ border- crossing activities.