The Project

The ITSSOIN project (Impact of the Third Sector as SOcial INnovation) investigates the impact of the Third Sector and civic engagement on society, which goes beyond their economic benefits or the natural virtue of caring for others.

Project purpose

Since it is hard to establish causality and to measure social properties when investigating impact, especially at the level of society, ITSSOIN will narrow down Third Sector impact to one priority aspect: social innovation – understood as the capacity of non-profit organizations to generate novel ideas, ways and means of doing things, of addressing public and social problems of many kinds.

Main Hypothesis

The project’s main hypothesis is that the Third Sector, specifically through stimulating civic involvement, is best placed to produce social innovation, outperforming the commercial sector and the state in this regard.


By investigating the nexus between the Third Sector and social innovation, ITSSOIN will help develop our understanding of why and how the sector is central to functioning, cohesive and viable societies. The project will enhance sector conceptions by building on and extending previous research traditions that have focused on different roles such as: service provider, minority advocate, value guardian, economic motor, or sphere of social interaction.

Research approach

ITSSOIN will develop testable hypotheses and investigate them empirically. This will be done by identifying dominant social innovation streams in selected fields to investigate how nonprofits and civic engagement have enabled, meaning initiated or driven, the particular innovation.

The fields to be investigated will include: culture & arts; social services; health care; environmental sustainability; consumer protection; work integration; and community development.

Based on an empirical portrait of the Third Sector in nine countries, the project will explore the influence of structural characteristics of non-profit organizations and civic engagement on social innovations. Thereby ITSSOIN will focus on organizations (properties and practices) and context conditions (discourses and policy frameworks).

ITSSOIN addresses the needs of Europe in three respects:

  • It responds to the Lisbon agenda, where Europe is described as an “innovation engine” that has to provide and secure space for creativity, the development of new solutions and citizen participation.
  • It explores the sources and patterns of continued modernization of society that can help reducing the (financial and regulative) burdens on the state, improve business-society relations and increase societal cohesion.
  • It puts a major emphasis on self-organization as a (new) principle for the viability of European societies by proposing a pivotal role of civic engagement.

The following pages give an insight into the eight work packages (WP) that ITSSOIN comprises:

March 2014 - March 2017

Project team
Prof. Dr. Helmut K. Anheier (project manager)
Dr. Gorgi Krlev
Dr. Georg Mildenberger

European Commission (FP-7)