In the U.S. we’ve agreed to disagree about what to call that “other” sector of collective action that isn’t private (aka, privately owned business) and isn’t public (aka, government). Non-profit, not-for-profit, third, social, civil, voluntary all capture bits of it, but miss important bits as well. Which is why I’m increasingly fond of Henry Mintzberg’s framing and naming for this other sector: plural.
In Rebalancing Society, he suggests “plural” as the best way to consider the intentions, actions, and purposes for this other sector. And he further suggests that vibrant societies are about balance rather than single-sector strength. Says he:
Strength in all three sectors is necessary for a society to be balanced. Imagine them as the sturdy legs of a stool — or pillars, if you wish — on which a healthy society has to be supported: a public sector of political forces rooted in respected governments, a private sector of economic forces based on responsible businesses, and a plural sector of social forces manifested in robust communities. (p.27)
Mintzberg is certainly not the first to suggest a three-legged platform for thriving societies. But his framing of “plural” as one of those legs is a productive contribution, because it includes a vast range of collective efforts — not just formal institutions — such as social movements, cooperatives, and informal collaborations:
…the plural sector comprises all associations of people that are owned neither by the state nor by private investors. Some are owned by their members; others are owned by no one.
Of course, formal institutions are still in there too: not-for-profit arts organizations, educational institutions, social services, volunteer enterprises. But they are surrounded by the dark matter of millions of informal and often unrecognized collectives that support and advance a resilient plural life.
Mintzberg is also clear that each of the three sectors has unique strengths, but also insidious downsides — private (markets) can be crass, public (governments) can be crude, plural (communities) can be closed — which is why each sector must strive toward its best self (more productive, less destructive, as I’ve said before), and each must play well with others.
The plural sector is NOT a midpoint between private and public. It is a third way of attracting, aligning, and activating people and resources. I’m planning to continue taking the framing and naming out for a spin.