Call Me Plural Sector!

plural-sectorHenry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, wrote an interesting article about the identity and the role of Plural Sector. This article was published on Stanford Social Innovation Review in Summer 2015.

The article talks about the third sector that has not been able to settle on an acceptable label: indeed, third sector reminds a third-rate thing, non-profits and non-governmental organisations are not clear because governments are literally non-profit and businesses non-governmental. If we call it voluntary, we will underline the role of volunteers, if civil society, we will consider it in opposition to an uncivil society. Social sector is a good label only if it is used with political and economic sector.

The author thinks that the label plural sector is the best choice for two reasons: first of all, because of the variety of this sector’s associations and their range of ownerships and secondly, because it can take its place naturally alongside the labels public and private.

In addition, it is clear that this sector is really plural: there are associations owned by their members (i.d. Mondragon, the world’s largest federation of worker cooperatives) and associations owned by no one such as foundations, religious order, think tanks, activist NGOs and service NGOs. On this point, the article “The Invisible World of Association by Henry Mintzberg et al., shows an interesting categorization of the associations:

  • Mutual associations which serve their own members (book clubs);
  • Benefit associations which serve other people (food banks);
  • Protection associations which advocate for their members (chambers of commerce);
  • Activist associations which advocate for the needs of others (Amnesty International).

A lot of these associations are formally organized but the most significant are the spontaneous one. There are two types:

  • Social movements: their aim is to struggle some aspects of the status quo such as the occupation of Wall Street and the American Tea Party movement.
  • Social initiatives: their goal is to defend programs of social change, first in local communities such as Grameen Bank.

Then, according to the author, plural sector has been attacked by different forces and it is trying to defend itself by the pressures from the other two sectors and the consequences of new technologies. In history, both communism and capitalism have been undermining the plural sector where they have dominated. Communists government have never loved community associations, in fact, the first crack in the URSS was caused by two plural sector organisations: the Catholic Church and the Solidarity Union in Poland. Even democratic governments sometimes had a strange relationship with community organisations: i.d. the amalgamations of small towns into bigger cities as a consequence of economic growth no matter the social outcome. If it is possible, the private sector is more “dangerous”: an example of this is the struggle between fast food chains and local cuisines.

At this point, the author affirms that: “There is a homogenizing effect in globalization that is antithetical to the distinctiveness of communities. As a consequence, while private sectors have been expanding their powers globally, plural sectors have been withering locally”.

New technologies even are detrimental for the plural sector because the new social media connect people creating network not communities. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, reporting an Egyptian friend about the role of social movement, says that Facebook really helped people to communicate but not to collaborate.

In Mintzberg’s opinion, today, it is time to rebalance society. People require attention to three basic needs: protection provided by governments, consumption provided by businesses and affiliations found in communities. A healthy society combines these three factors balanced. Weaken any one of these and a society falls out of balance.

It is clear that there was not balance in communist regimes because the public sector dominated the other two, but it is also easy to understand that in the “developed” world consumption has become excessive. So, communist regimes collapsed because they were out of balance but US are out of balance (demise of democracies, ongoing denigrations of ourselves, …).

The question is: “Who will lead radical renewal?” Certainly not the private sector because the imbalance favors many of them. The answer is, of course, the plural sector: the renewal will have to begin in communities on the ground.

Although the plural sector seems to be obscure, surely it is not impotent: a good point is attributed to the independence and flexibility of many of its associations. If the private sector is about individual ownership and the public sector is about collective citizenship, the plural sector is about shared communityship (these associations are able to function as communities of engaged human beings rather than collections of passive human resources).

The plural sector is not perfect but it offers a way to restore balance in society, in other words, constructive social movements and social initiatives, carried out in local communities and networked for global impact, are the greatest hope we have for regaining balance in this troubled world. But something will first have to change in the plural sector.

In the last part of the article, Mintzberg says that the main problem is that the sector does not act collectively because of its plurality. This is not a problem for the private sector because it is less dispersed especially when profit is involved. This does not mean that the plural sector should imitate business practices but it can learn from it (and vice versa). According to him, “it [the plural sector] has to focus on its distinctiveness. Let’s welcome partnerships across institutions of the three sectors, as long as they are balanced, with full recognition of the contributions that can be made by each of the partners”. In conclusion, what plural sector needs are partnerships for the cause of better balance in the world.

L’etichetta “terzo settore” non mostra chiaramente e senza alcun dubbio l’identità e le caratteristiche di questo settore. Henry Mintzbeg in questo articolo spiega come il “terzo settore” meriti un nome migliore in ragione dell’importanza che ha nel ristabilire un equilibrio in questo mondo tormentato.