Beyond 3D: The Emerging Fourth Sector

photo credit, JamesWatkins via Flickr

Again this summer, I attended the United Community Services Human Services Summit here locally, a gathering of a couple hundred human services professionals, this time to talk about major trends in our communities that will impact the demand for and delivery of human services in the coming years.

I participated in a discussion about rising poverty in the suburbs, which was certainly interesting (and, of course, gave me an opportunity to do my usual “solving poverty is a question of political courage, not technical ability” speech, so that’s always welcomed!), but I found it notable that one of the trends offered as a choice to participants failed to garner enough interest to be one of the areas of discussion for the breakout groups: the rise of alternative organizational models in human services.

Now I am by no means one of the experts on social enterprises and other manifestations of these different approaches to organizational structure and governance in human services. But I have noticed the impact of this trend on my students, and, therefore, on my own thinking about organizational approaches to solving social problems, in a couple of significant ways:

  • While most of my students still go to work for “traditional” nonprofit organizations, I have had a few recent graduates find work in the for-profit sector, either in the realm of privatization or, more recently (and more importantly, for this discussion) in pretty straightforward for-profit companies that are developing new social benefit enterprises, and want social workers on board to help guide those.
  • Regardless of where they work, social work graduates, particularly those in administration, are called on to have more traditionally ‘corporate’ skills, related to financial management and articulation of impact, than in the past. Sometimes, social work education fails to adequately prepare students for these demands.
  • I’ve had several conversations lately with, in particular, some of my more recent social work graduates who are chafing at the confines of the divisions among types of organization and who find categorizing organizations based on their purpose, rather than their tax structure, a much more useful distinction.

    It was in light of these developments, and the apparent lack of much interest in them by these local leaders in social services, that I read with interest the report by the Fourth Sector Network, The Aspen Institute, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation–The Emerging Fourth Sector.

    Here, they’re defining this fourth sector, and the organizations that comprise it, as a new class of organizations focused on sustainability–“lasting economic prosperity, social equity, and environment wellbeing”, incredibly diverse in their structures and areas of emphasis, but united by their pursuit of social goals/purposes through the method of engagement in business activities. They might be nonprofit social service organizations developing businesses in order to fund their mission work, or for-profit companies committed to democratic governance, fair compensation, transparency, and social/environmental responsibility, or some sort of hybrid in between.

    As this report defines it (and this is what really caught my eye, given some of the discussion on this blog about what we should call the organizations where we do this great work), this fourth sector is the “for-benefit” sector, which holds a lot of appeal for me, since, after all, what organizations do (and achieve) should matter a lot more than what their tax status is.

    So, what does this mean for social workers? There are two key pieces, I think:

  • This fourth sector currently lacks the infrastructure and regulatory environment needed to support this type of organization, and this kind of support will be essential if for-benefit organizations are to achieve their full potential. This means that we have to think about advocacy beyond on our issue areas (mental health, child welfare, poverty) to affect the tax, corporate, and nonprofit policies that provide the foundation (or fail to) for the kinds of strategies that we want to pursue in order to impact social problems in all of those fields.
  • Social workers (and others) will need to be able to cross sectors–with a common language and transferable skills–in order to flourish in the fourth sector. Given how hard we find it, sometimes, to work even with others, within our own profession and working in the same types of organizations, this won’t be an easy lift. We need to get comfortable working with for-profit organizations (which, obviously, doesn’t mean the same thing as blindly accepting their practices and objectives!). We need to think about cooperatives and social enterprises and civic initiatives, and how those structures might be good adjuncts, perhaps, to our more traditionally-structured 501(c)3 organization. This will require, of course, changes in social work education, and also an openness to change that, quite possibly, will be facilitated by the infusion of new nonprofit leadership (and the entrance of those Millennials) expected in the decade to come.

    At its heart, I think discussions like these, and like those I’ve been having with students and practitioners and (through social networks) “social enterprise thinkers” over the past several months, boil down to the truth that what we call ourselves, at the end of the day, doesn’t really matter.

    All that matters, or should, is what we can call our work.

    If that’s “good”, then the rest is just details.

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