Testing times ahead for the Third Sector

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The Third Sector makes a substantial, but at times unrecognised, contribution to society in Northern Ireland. It is a key provider of health/social care; housing/housing support; education and training; environmental protection; childcare; youth services; sport, arts, and culture; and welfare advocacy. It is often a champion of social justice and human rights; plays a key role in tackling poverty and social exclusion; promotes gender equality and community cohesion; and seeks to safeguard the rights of the marginalised. It is dynamic and innovative, increasingly focused on sustainability through the creation of social enterprise and is undoubtedly an integral contributor to our economy. Yet it will continue to face significant internal and external challenges that will test its resilience over the forthcoming mandate and beyond.

An image of two hands: there may be testing times ahead for the Third Sector
An image of two hands: there may be testing times ahead for the Third Sector

What are some of the challenges ahead?

Funding: stability and sustainability

The budget deficit and austerity measures are having a significant impact on the sector across the UK. The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) states that uncertainty around departmental allocations to the sector (e.g. grant-aid and contracts) is creating a ‘cliff edge’ with some organisations unsure as to whether they will exist beyond their current funding allocation. Junior ministers have been tasked to work with NICVA to assess the cumulative impact of departmental spending reductions on the sector. An action plan is to be presented to the Executive for agreement and subsequently shared with Departments.

Aside from government funding, there are other financial pressures. In 2011, an estimated 29.7% of funding income was from charitable giving. The new CO3/Ulster Bank Third Sector Index, and the imminent NICVA State of the Sector VII report, will provide an important insight into the ways in which funding levels in general have changed. There are also funding opportunities aimed at promoting sustainability through social economy enterprise growth (such as Social Economy Work Programme and Social Enterprise Hubs).

Welfare reform

The implementation of welfare reform has led to an increasing reliance on third sector organisations in Great Britain. Funding has not kept pace with demand and resources are often diverted from preventative to crisis-led work. The outworking of the NI Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group report is likely to cushion Northern Ireland from the worst effects of welfare reform. Strand two of the Group’s report recognises the importance of providing additional resources to the advice sector to enable it to guide people through the changes ahead.

This pre-emptive approach will alleviate many of the pressures on organisations, but not all. The need to do ‘more with less’ will remain problematic. The sector has proven itself to be responsive and innovative in addressing economic hardship, as evidenced by the growth in food banks in Northern Ireland. Given that welfare reform will impact upon the most vulnerable in society (particularly children), meaningful collaboration between statutory bodies and the sector, as well as within the sector itself, is crucial.

Engagement and accountability

Developing and maintaining effective engagement and accountability are challenges for both the NI Executive and the Third Sector. The framework for the relationship between the community and voluntary sector is set out in the Concordat which emphasises the importance of openness, trust and mutual respect. This may well be tested within the context of the fiscal constraints of the new mandate. Now may be an opportune time, particularly given the recent restructuring of government departments and the formation of new councils, to revitalise existing, or establish new, mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation between the sector, government and political representatives.


The Third Sector is diverse; each subsector has its own issues that are unique to it, but in general funding, welfare reform and engagement/accountability will affect most organisations. There are other issues that are relevant to the sector that may also be prevalent in the new mandate, for example:

  • The impact of departmental strategies and policies, particularly Supporting People and Transforming Your Care;
  • The roll-out of increased regulation;
  • Maintaining independence in the face of developments such as the Lobbying Act;
  • Leadership and governance;
  • Promoting volunteering; and
  • Community asset transfer.