Is it time to rebrand the social sector?

The summer 2015 cover issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, has Henry Mintzberg, the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University, and an important contributor to the global field of management theory, making a powerful argument for the rebranding, or re-labelling what he calls the “third sector”.

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He argues for clarity and consistency in the designation of the sector we in fact,  more commonly refer to as the “social sector”. In light of his argument, this convenient “default” label seems at times too broad and simultaneously insufficient a descriptor, depending on context. Mintzberg champions the use of the term the “Plural Sector” instead, citing its diversity of ownerships and stakeholders. The term “plural” also makes sense in that the sector’s activities cannot easily be synthesized down to a singular thing.

The public sector’s focus is explicitly on government, while the private sector’s is on business and the free-market economy. Organizations in the plural sector are by contrast primarily focused on community, albeit covering a remarkably wide range of missions and interests between them. Many address local issues and needs, while others assume provincial or national mandates, or even tackle global challenges.

The sector is made up of organizations as diverse as foundations, secular and faith-based charities, think tanks, religious orders, activist NGOs, service NGOs, relief organizations, advocacy groups, social clubs, healthcare and treatment providers, even hospitals. You may also count among them organizations forming around social initiatives and grassroots movements fuelled by ideology, even organizations operating business ventures in a space that can be referred to as the “social economy”, where profits directly supporting their beneficial social work and mission. In all cases, these generally self-governing organizations operate in areas where neither government nor commercial interests can find a foothold, and where citizens organize to address the issues and fulfill the needs that the public or private sectors are either not willing, unable or simply not equipped to handle.

Because of this, Mintzberg maintains that without a stronger and more inclusive label that recognizes this diversity and brings it all together under a unified banner, the sector will remain to many – including politicians and the business establishment – a marginal player with neither the profile, the capacity nor the cohesiveness to fulfill its collective and implicit purpose to bring balance, fairness and justice to a society increasingly splayed between the polarities of the public and private sectors. He contends, with sound reasoning, that it will remain fractured and will continue to be excluded from the great debates of our time, as it has been for most of the last 40 years. Whether “plural” is the right label, I agree with Mintzberg that a strong unified “brand” could help promote the sector’s status and communal effectiveness by lending it the voice, the standing and the substantive presence it requires and that we need it to assume.

As a branding and communications practitioner who has worked extensively with numerous organizations in this sector, I have often felt it inadequate to confine certain client organizations to a category with a label that was either too narrow or ill suited to their mission, ownership or structure. It turns out there is considerable unclaimed territory for those organizations that do not conform to the strict definition of either the public or private sector and where the term “social” is either limiting or imprecise. Communications agencies can help promote the sector’s uniqueness and, more importantly, its cohesiveness, by applying a different category label to their work and to that of their clients. It may be a while until it catches on, but why not use “Plural” as that label, and in so doing play a part in helping society recognize the importance and influence of the sector in bringing balance back to society.