This briefing paper examines the rise of the idea and practices associated with ‘enterprise’ within the third sectors in Scotland, England and France. In our pilot project exploring the challenges facing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the current economic crisis and subsequent austerity, we found that the logic of free market relations had penetrated and embedded itself into the rationale and practices of the third sector in these three countries. Principles of competition, the accumulation of assets and the commodification of services and products offered by NGOs had either been imposed onto individual organisations by the local or national state or organisations had actively adopted these ideas in order to survive austerity. The adoption of free market principles in the third sector, while not new, has continued apace during the crisis. We suggest that enterprise and austerity represent a double hazard that NGOs are forced to negotiate for survival in these tough economic times. In many ways we argue that this is perhaps a key story of the crisis and the cuts because it creates tensions and dilemmas for the development of viable alternatives to austerity policies within these third sector spaces.
We argue that enterprise is not a neutral concept and practice for NGOs. Rather, enterprise is an unacknowledged political stance that reshapes the ways in which NGOs define social problems, develop their programmes of activity and enact their social practices. Questions remain about what these free market principles embedded within the NGO sector mean for the most marginalised groups in France and the UK—minority women. We suggest that the ability for minority women to articulate and take action on complex social justice claims within the sector is under threat because these claims may well be silenced and/or ignored due to the prevailing enterprise logic of the sector.