By Joan Fontrodona

Cite Soleil, Haiti, prior to the earthquake this slum built on a rubbish dump was home to 500,000. Author: Thomas Black57
Cite Soleil, Haiti, prior to the earthquake this slum built on a rubbish dump was home to 500,000. Author: Thomas Black57

Our societies have long recognized the role of NGOs—the third sector—in resolving a multitude of situations. Moreover, cooperation between the public sector, the private sector and NGOs has produced excellent results  in both developed and developing countries. But in recent years the boundaries between those three sectors seem to have faded, and the differentiating role of NGOs is at risk of disappearing.

But what is the differentiating role of the third sector and why do we need to preserve it? It is the underlying logic: generosity.

  • The private sector is driven by market logic, which seeks a good balance between what is given and what is received (which in classical terminology is called “commutative justice”). But the market is depersonalizing, focusing on the per capita income without making the distinction that some have the income while others have the
  • The public sector is driven by a logic of power, which pursues a sense of justice that leads to ensuring conditions of equality that facilitate the development of all (ergo the name “distributive justice”). But power is also depersonalizing, because it inevitably imposes the majority opinion over and above the legitimate claims of those in the minority.
  • And the logic of the third sector is that of generosity. The contribution of NGOs to social coexistence is the reality that as human beings we often give without expecting anything in return. That is the highest form of justice, which is known as “charity,” not in the sense of alms for the poor, but rather that of seeking the good in others. And the role of the third sector is to avoid the depersonalization of society, attending to individuals in terms of what they are and what they need.

As such, we should preserve this heritage that seems to be progressively dissolved by different circumstances:

  • We have seen the emergence of important social movements that occupy spaces formerly reserved for the public sector.
  • There is a growing number of hybrid companies, which in addition to profitability also seek a defined social impact that consequently blurs the line between for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
  • Cooperatives still exist, with a lengthy tradition in some countries.
  • And a circumstance that has had a great impact on NGOs: the “free fall” of their sources of financing (mainly the public sector) and the growth of demand for their services… The cuts (perhaps excessive) resulting from a lengthy crisis have affected them tremendously.
  • Consequently, NGOs have been forced to seek new sources of funding—calling on companies or turning directly to society. The emergence and growth of phenomena such as crowdfunding plays a large part in this need for financing.

Redefining the role of NGOs

A society that promotes well-being—a.k.a. the common good—must not only seek the creation of wealth and the fair distribution of that wealth. It should go beyond that and seek the good of each and every one of its members. The pursuit of the common good, however, requires being willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of others, from the most pressing material needs to the highest human aspirations.

For this reason, the third sector is necessary not only for what it does, but for what it reminds us: that at the heart of any social initiative—whether public or private—are human beings.

What can be done to restore it? There are several areas, but here are some aspects that could help restore the strength of NGOs:

  • The third sector should redefine its business models. During the economic boom, the third sector developed and spread considerably. But the scenario has changed: crisis and competition from for-profit organizations require NGOs to redefine their identity, what they contribute to society and what differentiates them.
  • At a time like the present, it can become necessary to strengthen collaboration between entities, promoting networking to add more value to society.
  • Its model of governance must also evolve. We are all familiar with cases of questionable practices that have undermined the good image and trust in these organizations. Rebuilding its reputation will require measuring the impact of its work, promoting the transparency of its management and offering accountability of all of this to the various stakeholders, especially those who provide funds and benefit from those activities.

Although the border between the three sectors can become blurred, and despite them being increasingly subject to the same pressures and demands by society, the social dynamics would be tarnished if the third sector were to lose the differentiating quality of its contribution to the whole of society: the importance of human beings.