Learning to prepare the third sector for the future

Marion Fields presents four scenarios that will shape the future work life: Digitalisation, Increasing inequality, Loose communities and Status quo.

The realities of work and visions of the future do not always match. As our Erasmus+ KA2 project Future Skills for the Third Sector (FUTUR3) set out to map and manage future skills needs in the European third sector, we also made a similar discovery.

In the last two years we have studied skills needs among third sector staff, focusing on volunteer coordinators and managers, and developed a peer learning model for managing future challenges. At the onset, we designed a scenario model combining megatrend visions and voices from the field. We identified the following four scenarios and related skills needs that shape the sector’s future in the next 10 years:

  1. Digital. Volunteering, fundraising, management and other processes increasingly take place online and use mobile and other technologies. Skills needs: technical, mobile work, supervision etc.
  2. Increasing inequality. Demographic change, migration and other factors increase marginalisation. One way for societies to manage this is to turn to the third sector, which will have a growing role in service provision. Skills needs: Understanding & empathy, advocacy, tendering etc.
  3. Loose communities. Volunteering and civic participation become more fluid and short term. This causes new kinds of managerial demands. Skills needs: community management, technical databases etc.), recruitment, motivating.
  4. Status quo. Work will continue as before, but organisations, staff and volunteers must learn to manager uncertainty. Skills needs: contingency management, fundraising etc.

The experts we have interviewed hold a strong view that digitalisation is the pressing scenario and organisations should be putting more effort into managing it. This is where the realities of work differ. Volunteer coordinators’ responses to our skills needs survey (475 in total) showed that they often work under the status quo assumption, and have little access to training. They are often busy in their daily tasks, so future visions may be simply pushed aside. On the other hand, volunteer managers also see that social skills such as team work and overcoming stereotypes need attention, which also points to other scenarios.

Many of these skills were also visible in the peer learning process we designed for volunteer managers and other third sector staff. Based on design thinking, the idea was to create user-centred processes where groups decide on their own learning goals and work on them. The challenges our groups set for themselves varied from helping volunteers to interact to creating spaces for volunteering in cities. Reactions have been positive and we have published the model in 10 languages along with our benchmarking report.

What we learned about the future of work in the third sector is that it will become more diverse as people’s identities and volunteering become more complex. This will require a set of guidance and social skills, which need to be used in various contexts, both face to face and on line. This is something for which European third sector organisations need to start preparing right now. Digitalisation in particular causes urgent training needs, even if it doesn’t yet show in everyday work routines. If third sector organisations cannot provide training or other learning opportunities themselves, they need to look for partners from educational institutions, trade unions, companies and other organisations.

Our view is that the third sector will gain a stronger role as an employer around Europe, and it must embrace the future before it becomes stifled by the many challenges that lie ahead. Partners and participants ended on an optimistic note, which can be summed up in the slogan that our peer learning group in Tampere, Finland created for itself: “joy, togetherness, visibility.”

Find our results on our website:

Find us on social media: twitter: @futur3skills   facebook:

Author: Marion Fields, Specialist, Sivis Study Centre, Helsinki, Finland

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