Theory and Policy

TSRC explores the important theoretical and conceptual debates about the third sector, and provides informed and critical analysis of the policy context for the sector in the UK.

Theoretical analysis of the sector is important in underpinning our understanding of what the sector is and how it works. TSRC helps ensure that difficult theoretical issues are articulated and explored, including key concepts such as Civil Society and Voluntary Action. This strong theoretical and conceptual analysis helps to inform all of the Centre's research.

Critical understanding of the policy environment for the sector is also essential, as it determines much of what happens within the sector. We need to know ‘what works’, but we also need to understand who decides ‘what matters’.

Key questions

  • What is Civil Society?
  • What are the key challenges facing the third sector?
  • How is the policy environment changing?
  • Who are the key policy actors?
  • How do policy makers decide what matters?

Current work

Theory and policy work during the bridge funding period will focus on the following topics:

  • Exploration of distinctiveness and autonomy of the third sector, and its relationship to Civil Society.
  • Review of the devolved policy environment for the third sector in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Analysis of developments in the policy environment in England, including the Big Society policy discourse.
  • Completion and publication of analysis of leadership within the sector, including who speaks for the sector and who they represent.

Previous work

Wherever there is money there is influence: exploring BIG's impact on the third sector

Research by TSRC, in partnership with BIG, has explored the role and impact of BIG in the third sector.

The Big Lottery Fund (BIG) represents a significant source of funding for the third sector. During the current period of public sector cuts its significance is likely to increase. BIG’s mission is to ‘bring real improvements to communities and the lives of people most in need’, rather than to achieve outcomes for the third sector itself. But given its scale of funding, it is likely to have had considerable - albeit unanticipated - outcomes and impacts on the sector.

The research highlights BIG's influence on the sector, not just as a result of its direct funding but also its philosophies, its strategies, and its processes. It has contributed to the establishment, continuation, diversification, expansion and capacity of third sector organisations. It has contributed to a move towards outcomes thinking across the sector, to partnership working, user involvement and the growth of local voluntary action. BIG’s impact on the sector, however, is not as consistent or significant as it might be, and is not always positive. At the sector level, BIG is more likely to be seen a ‘facilitator’ than a ‘leader’ of change.

The potential for BIG to shift its relationship with the sector raises opportunities and challenges, for them and the sector. More generally, it exposes the significance of funders as policy actors within the third sector.

The report offers five questions and potential strategies for BIG and the third sector to address - about engagement, transparency, intelligence, independence, and the extent to which BIG is or could be an active policy actor within the sector.


The research explored three key themes:

  • BIG’s relationship with the third sector and how this has evolved over time;
  • Perceived impacts of BIG on the third sector and its organisations;
  • Future priorities and directions.
  • The research involved two stages. The scoping phase involved interviews with BIG staff and a literature review.

The main stage included interviews and focus groups with a range of stakeholders within BIG, the third sector, government and other funders, and an online survey of grant recipients in third sector organisations.

Download Publications

Research contacts:

Angela Ellis Paine
Rebecca Taylor
Pete Alcock

Third Sector Policy across the UK since 2000

Since the end of the last century the United Kingdom has been a less united country. Along with many areas of social and public policy, third sector policy has now been devolved to the separate administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 1999, a separate Scottish Executive (from 2007 the Scottish Government) and Welsh Assembly Government were established, followed later by a new Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, based on a power sharing agreement known as the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

Research in TSRC has focused on the impact of this devolution to explore the changing national context for policy and practice. We look at the extent to which devolution has led to a divergence in third sector policy across the UK.

This research has been supported by the advice of research Reference Groups in each of the devolved administrations comprised of leading academics, policy makers and practitioners.

Working paper 2: Devolution or Divergence?

For the first part of this period Labour administrations were in power in all four nations to some extent. This period also saw government engagement with and support for the sector extend far beyond the levels found throughout much of the last century. This led to a growth in the size and scale of the sector and closer involvement of sector representatives in political debate and policy planning.

These issues are explored in more depth by Pete Alcock in TSRC Working Paper 2 : Devolution or divergence? Third Sector Policy across the UK since 2000.

This has since been published separately as a contribution to a more general review of devolution policy and practice: Devolution in Practice, Lodge G and Schmuecker K (eds), (2010) London, IPPR.

New Policy Spaces, Feb 2012

Elections in the devolved administrations led to a loosening of Labour control in 2007. This was followed by the establishment of the Coalition Government in the UK in 2010 and further elections in the devolved administrations in 2011, which resulted in different parties in power across all four administrations.

Research published in the Social Policy and Administration Journal, explored these further changes to devolution since the 2010 and 2011 elections, including the extent to which the Big Society agenda has penetrated across new national borders.

Our research finds that devolution has created an important new space for third sector policy development across the UK, but that the direction of travel in all four regimes has remained remarkably similar.

Professor Pete Alcock




Research contacts

  • Pete Alcock
  • Angela Ellis Paine
  • Jeremy Kendall
  • Rob Macmillan