The role of the third sector in delivering social care

Completed   2011


Third sector providers have been important in the delivery of social care services for some time. Long before the advent of the ‘contract culture’ that started to emerge in the 1980s, third sector organisations have been involved in the delivery of what we would today define as social care. But this role is changing as the personalisation agenda takes hold and there is a push for closer integration between health and social care services within a context of constrained financial resources. Although a number of researchers have written on the subject of social care delivery by third sector agencies, there is no single account of the state of knowledge in the area or a clear account of the research agenda for the future.


This review was designed to address this and is organised around the following objectives to:

  • review the significant contributions to the academic policy and practice literatures in order that we might establish the existing state of knowledge in terms of the third sector in delivering social care in England;
  • conduct semi-structured interviews with a number of key contacts to verify challenges identified from literature and assist in horizon scanning; and
  • identify the research agenda, including an indication of the main questions to be studied and the types of studies that might be needed to address them.


A search was conducted of relevant databases and a snowballing technique adapted alongside a call out to the Voluntary Sector Studies Network requesting relevant materials. In total 91 articles were identified that met the inclusion criteria. Items were included where they focused on English adult social care services and they made some mention of the role of third sector organisations. Items were excluded from the review where they did not focus on social care or the third sector or where they were principally concerned with children’s services.

The literature review was complemented by eight semi-structured interviews with leading individuals from academia, policy and practice. These interviews were designed to test out existing findings but also to complement the largely retrospective research base with some prospective perspectives of what the future challenges would be for third sector organisations involved in delivering social care.


The main areas of discussion within the literature focused on approaches to research in third sector and social care; the distinctiveness of the third sector in delivering social care; relationships with commissioners of social care; and the role of volunteers.

Many of the items retrieved as part of this review were not robustly designed research projects in good quality peer-reviewed journals, with those retrieved being either pieces from the trade press, policy documents or pieces published by particular bodies with an interest in this area. Even when articles appeared in academic journals they were often discussion pieces or did not go into much detail as to what process had been gone through to generate the evidence set out in the article.

In general the review found a limited range of methodological approaches within existing research studies and a failure to theorise key concepts and critically challenge previous work.

The overall conclusion from this review was that there was a relative lack of robust research relating to the role of third sector organisations in delivering social care services. There were significant gaps in the approaches to researching the third sector and social care.

The role of the third sector in delivering social care
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