‘I always come away with new ways of thinking about important issues that I can use in my research and that of my students’. This unsolicited comment from a participant at the International Society of Third Sector Research (ISTR) Conference in Montreal reflects the longstanding commitment ISTR has to interdisciplinary and comparative research on the third sector and civil society generally. Celebrating 30 years of ISTR and the special contribution of Lester Salmon in establishing this network, more than 400 academics and practitioners gathered for the main conference and were joined by more than 40 PhD students who had also met and discussed their proposals with Faculty for the two days prior. With a conference theme of ‘navigating in turbulent times: perspectives and contributions from the third sector’, presentations and discussions address the critical role of the third sector in reshaping discourses and rebuilding trust and identities. The conference is hosted by a local organising committee and held at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business.
In addition to numerous academic paper sessions, roundtables, poster sessions and book signings, a number of professional development workshops are being held, and cover a range of topics, including the role of archives. This session on ‘taming third-sectors’ organisations ocean of information’ is being run by the Rockefeller Archive Centre, to whom ISTR has gifted its archives and committed continuing support. On Thursday evening, awards are to be presented for civil society policy impact research, emerging scholars, and the best paper in Voluntas – ISTR’s official journal that provides a central forum for worldwide research in the area between the state, market, and household sectors. The emerging scholar’s dissertation award is to be renamed in honour of its (previously anonymous) founder –Lester M. Salamon, a way to ensure his legacy is remembered.
On Wednesday, Helmut Anheier was the keynote speaker launching the series of conference sessions to highlight the impact of Lester Salamon’s research on the development of the field of Third Sector studies. As the initial lead partner during the inception of the Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (CNP) he provided a snapshot of its development and the strategy of interessement in persuading statistical departments, the United Nations and International Labor Organisation to use the SNA and collect data on the Third Sector as a basis for the project. Thirty years on, Helmut Anheier challenged participants to reflect on how to ‘push the envelope’ again and to bring in the wider social science community to ask different and bigger questions than CNP was able to. With the rise of other measures of government (e.g. V-Dem and QoG) he suggested a reframing of the nonprofit sector as civil society capacity which could then be compared to government capacity to further understand the capacity of nonprofit organisations to self-organise and self-governance. Further, he noted the importance of values and ideologies that requires more research, particularly where religion is a key component and can change the outcomes of comparative research. A major theme of his speech and that of the discussants was the challenge of data collection in order to ask questions which relate to major social science concerns.
Data and technology is a major theme through the conference, with papers on nonprofits’ social media use for advocacy. In the pandemic and (post-)pandemic era, the impact of technology in engaging with service users is under the spotlight, recognising that this can be both enabling and dis-enabling, especially where digitalisation is used to manage and reduce costs and therefore human contact. Technology also enables new ways for recruiting and retaining volunteers and to encourage philanthropy both through reaching out to donors (through social media) and in developing new methods of giving. Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy presented on its ‘Digital for Good’ global study on emerging ways of giving through innovative tools and strategies in Singapore and South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. It explores giving by non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrency, crowdfunding, contactless giving, online giving, fandom donations and online volunteering. The future of giving is diverse.
There is much to discuss this week and to consider how our research can have positive impacts on society, whether it is policy, organisations or individuals. It is great to be back to ISTR in-person and to enjoy the warmth of a Montreal welcome.
Carolyn Cordery, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Treasurer of ISTR.