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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

The role of the third sector in a Wellbeing Economy

By Jimmy Paul, director of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland

As the rapidly escalating impacts of climate change are starting to bite, headlines on fires, storms, heatwaves and floods around the world are becoming an almost daily occurrence. In Scotland, flooded streets have become a familiar sight. At the same time, the Covid pandemic, itself a result of our over exploitation of the natural world, has shone a light on many of the deep and long-standing cracks in our society. 

In these times the role of the third sector has never felt more important. Protecting the most marginalised among us, campaigning for change – the list of worthwhile and urgent tasks is endless. The sheer scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming, but I cannot help but feel lifted up by the energy, hope and creativity of the people that I meet working in the sector.  

I want to take the opportunity of this piece to reflect how we, as the third sector, in all its diversity and with all its creativity, can make sure that we are working together to build the new architecture of a Wellbeing Economy, in addition to fighting the fires in our current economy.

The environmental and social challenges we are facing are connected. They are both symptoms of an economy that prioritises a narrow conception of economic growth over the health of people and planet, treating the economy as an objective in its own right. But because the challenges are connected, the solutions are connected, too. We can fix them together by building a Wellbeing Economy that works in service of the needs of people and planet.

A Wellbeing Economy has a different purpose at its core, the purpose of delivering social justice on a healthy planet. It would be designed to provide us with what matters most – dignity, connection, nature, fairness and participation.

What would be the role of the third sector in such an economy? To answer this question, it is worth examining four of the key principles of the Wellbeing Economy – purpose, prevention, pre-distribution and people power.


Currently, our economy is designed to grow and grow, despite the heavy toll that this growth is taking on our planet and despite the misalignment of this growth with the needs of our communities. The success of the economy is still measured by the growth in Gross Domestic Product, even though we have known for a long time that “it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”, as put by US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968.

A Wellbeing Economy would be designed with a different purpose, to prioritise those things that make life worthwhile: the joy of connecting with our friends and families, the peace of walking among the trees, the satisfaction of contributing to fair and strong communities, the security of knowing we are looked after, and the feelings we express through our songs and artworks.

Purpose is a concept that resonates with many of my colleagues in the third sector. While the sector contains a vast diversity of activities, organisations and ambitions, it is very much united around the purpose of making a positive difference in the world. It is this purpose that is motivating the employees in the sector, the volunteers that so many organisations depend upon and the funders that support them.

The third sector therefore has to play a key part in building a Wellbeing Economy. We need to expand many of the activities already delivered by the sector, whether it is football clubs, theatre productions or community gardens. We will also need the considerable expertise in campaigning and public engagement in the sector to drive the wider system change to make a Wellbeing Economy happen.

Organisations in the sector are doing fantastic work on their own slice of purpose, whether it is poverty, environmental sustainability, health, or art. But we must also consider the bigger picture. To build a Wellbeing Economy, we need to address all these issues together. We need to start connecting the dots. Just because we are doing good work on health, we cannot ignore the environmental impacts of our work. And vice versa, if we are campaigning for stronger climate measures we cannot afford to ignore social injustice around us. It is heartening to see more and more people in the sector starting to connect these dots.

Prevention and Pre-distribution

On its own, a change in purpose will not be enough. To build a Wellbeing Economy we need to find new ways of designing our economic system that address the root causes of the social and environmental challenges we face. A Wellbeing Economy needs to change the rules of the game, rather than continuing to treat the casualties of the current system with sticking plasters. In a recent report by WEAll, we show that the UK and Scottish governments spend billions of pounds in Scotland every year to top up poverty wages, house the homeless or build flood protection measures against climate change impacts. These are demands that could be avoided by a better design of our economy that prevents these issues arising in the first place and that makes sure that everybody’s contributions are rewarded with a fair income.

Much of the work done in the third sector is already aligned with this principle and helps to address root causes. For example, sports clubs help their members stay healthy, the successes of social enterprises and living wage campaigns demonstrate that workers can be treated fairly, and climate change groups campaign for the reductions of carbon emissions now to avoid damages in the future.

But our current economy also demands a lot of work from the third sector to patch up the worst of the damage done to our communities and natural environment; providing food through food banks, helping victims of discrimination and tidying up flood damage.

All of this work is of vital importance in our current economy, but in a Wellbeing Economy a lot of this sticking plaster work would become unnecessary. Fair and sufficient wages to all workers, access to universal needs, and environmental regeneration would be built into the system. At WEAll, we are hoping to make ourselves obsolete as soon as possible, looking at a time when Wellbeing Economy principles will be embedded in all areas of our society. The reduced need for sticking plaster work will free up important resources in the third sector to focus on delivering the things that make life worthwhile.

The transition to a preventative and pre-distributive Wellbeing Economy will take time and it needs to make sure that the shift of resources from sticking plaster work to preventative work does not leave anyone behind. Imagine a sliding seesaw where investment in prevention and a re-design of economic rules slowly eases the pressure to apply sticking plasters and make more and more resources available to deliver the things that make life worthwhile.

As a sector, we can never be satisfied with just dealing with sticking plasters, as necessary as it currently is. We should strive to address root causes with our work wherever we can. But on their own, many third sector organisations are limited in their ability to shift resources towards preventative work. We must keep asking why this work is needed in the first place and join our voices to demand a fundamental transformation towards a Wellbeing Economy.

People power

Finally, a Wellbeing Economy cannot be designed from the top down but needs to be built on meaningful participation and strong democratic practices, in the communities and countries where we live as well as in the organisations where we work. It needs to ensure that the voices of those left behind by our current system are front and centre. Without such participation the Wellbeing Economy will not work for those that need it most, it will not be able to take on the vested interests of the status quo. It will fall at the first hurdle.

The third sector is well placed to facilitate this important principle of a Wellbeing Economy. Many of our activities are deeply rooted in our communities and the sector plays a powerful role in holding governments and businesses to account for their social and environmental impacts.

But there is room for improvement. Too often we still do things to people rather than seriously listen to their needs. Too often we still have our own agenda rather than be led by those who we are meaning to serve. We can all do better, and that includes our work at WEAll.

So, the third sector must play an important role in building a Wellbeing Economy. Driven by purpose, embedded in the community and steeped in expertise for social change, it is hard to imagine how we could build a Wellbeing Economy without a flourishing third sector.

But the same applies in reverse. It is hard to imagine a flourishing third sector without a Wellbeing Economy. We are still forced to spend too much time fighting a system that is stacked against the causes we serve, constantly patching up the damage, just helping to survive. We need a Wellbeing Economy so that we can focus on delivering the things that make life worthwhile rather than just the things that make life possible.

We need to keep challenging ourselves to make sure that our practices are in line with purpose, prevention, pre-distribution and people power. But even more importantly, we need to lift our gaze and come together to make our voices heard and demand the fundamental shift towards a Wellbeing Economy that works in the service our purpose rather than against it.

Last modified on 1 February 2022