International Society for Third-Sector Research (The)

The International Society for Third-Sector Research exists in an effort to bring people together so they can work toward affecting a change in our society through the third-sector. Currently comprised of 649 separate organizations from around the world, the ISTR acts as a permanent forum for non-profit practitioners.


The stated mission of The International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) is “to promote the development of high quality research and education internationally on Third Sector related issues, theories, and policies; and to enhance the dissemination and application of knowledge about the Third Sector as widely as possible throughout the world” (International Society of Third Sector Research).  The purpose of the ISTR is to act as a permanent forum for non-profit practitioners around the world.  The ISTR realizes that the third-sector is growing rapidly and, to best utilize the resources of individual organizations, they must communicate globally.  The ISTR also publishes an interdisciplinary journal Voluntas that focuses on current issues and best practices for a variety of global institutions.
The ISTR is the major international membership organization promoting global ideas of civil society and philanthropy.  The ISTR is known and respected because of its dedication to an inclusive global vision, its recognition of diversity, and its commitment to achieving the points in the mission (Ibid).

Historical Roots

The International Society for Third-Sector Research was founded in 1992 and is closely tied to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1990, the "Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project" was established by international philanthropic leaders, in order to deepen the understanding of the international nonprofit sector.  Realizing the changing global role of the third-sector during the early 1990’s, the ISTR was established to study best practices for instituting international change.   Since then, the ISTR has continually published reports regarding specific regional topics and global views.  In addition to publishing a scholarly journal, quarterly news letters, and regional reports, the ISTR has hosted five biannual conferences that bring together scholars and practitioners from around the globe (International Society of Third Sector Research, Global Philanthropy Partnership 2003).

The initial conference was held in Pecs, Hungary in 1994.  During this conference, 265 Third Sector scholars and practitioners, representing 51 countries and six continents, met. Hungary was chosen to show that the ISTR supported the emerging third-sector in Central and Eastern Europe. The focus of this initial conference was to emphasize how community can have an impact in the third-sector (International Society of Third Sector Research).
The second conference was held in Mexico City during the fall of 1996.  Attending this conference were 275 participants representing 50 countries, who gathered together to exchange ideas regarding the third-sector.  The focus of this second conference was to establish an “intellectual commons” for non-profit leaders (Ibid).

The next conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1998. This conference brought together nearly 400 participants from 65 countries, which was an increase in participation and country representation of one-third over the 1996 conference in Mexico City. This would represent one of the largest jumps in participation ever for the ISTR (Ibid).

In 2000, the ISTR conference was held in Dublin, Ireland. This conference drew 550 participants from 61 countries, which constituted an increase of 37.5 percent from the previous conference.  The focus of this conference was to define which individuals the association was trying to help and what they could do for these identified people (Ibid).

In 2002, the fifth ISTR conference was held in Cape Town, South Africa.  This conference marked the 10th anniversary of the ISTR and its focus was turned towards future goals (Ibid).

In July of 2004, the most recent conference was held in Toronto, Canada.  This conference gathered together over 400 scholars and practitioners who focused their attention on “Civil Society in the Divided World” (MacDonald 2004).


The International Society for Third-Sector Research exists in an effort to bring people together so that they can work toward affecting a change in our society through the third-sector.  The ISTR has striven to achieve its goals through increased membership and a growing number of publications.  Today, the ISTR is the foremost association for the international research of third-sector development.  The ISTR also acts as a catalyst for international communication and has, for the past decade, been the association that released an incalculable amount of knowledge and information to third-sector practitioners around the globe (International Society of Third Sector Research, Elison 2002).

The timeframe in which this group has been functioning also explains a great deal about its importance.  Today, more than ever, we exist in a global community. Our current societies have global corporations, global communication, global governing agencies, and global non-profits.  This is a time when the sharing of knowledge can be of benefit to the entire third sector.  One organization can gain better insight into its effectiveness by comparing its aspirations, goals, and outcomes to other organizations.  Even though these exchanges have occurred, the true importance of this group can not be accurately measured since there is no concrete change in tangible entities such as buildings or social conditions that can be directly attributed to the ISTR.  What needs to be examined is the knowledge and experience that have been gained which have benefited individual institutions around the world  (International Society of Third Sector Research).

The ISTR has almost single handedly changed the face of the third-sector around the globe.  Associations are no longer forced to operate on information islands with little communication exchange, since the ISTR has opened up a dialogue for scholars and practitioners who benefit from one another on an international basis (Ibid).

Ties to Philanthropic Sector

The International Society for Third-Sector Research serves as a forum for international research and discussion on the third-sector, highlighting numerous critical issues that face non-profits in the global community.  This group now serves as the source to which individuals go for information on how to more effectively achieve their goals as a non-profit.  The ISTR is also providing printed information for non-profits which creates an intellectual dialogue that has proven to be beneficial to the individuals involved (Ibid).

The ISTR is an international organization that is currently comprised of 649 separate organizations from around the world.  This large membership base provides a wealth of information and offers illustrations of best practices for a myriad of third-sector organizations.  Also, every two years, the ISTR hosts a conference that brings together non-profit leaders from around the world who discuss common issues and share their stories and systems of success that can later be duplicated in other countries (International Society of Third Sector Research, Research Center for Volunteering and Welfare).

Key Related Ideas

Affinity Groups are interest groups that are structured around geography, thematic lines, or disciplines and that allow opportunities for members to pursue specific interests within the overall concept of the Third Sector. These groups explore deeper issues that may not be as evident in broad global third-sector research (International Society of Third Sector Research).
Recently, Global Philanthropy Partnerships was organized in an effort to help provide information to donors and donor advisors who would like to improve certain features of the third-sector.  These groups circulate information which allows donor dollars to be used more effectively (Global Philanthropy Partnership).

Regional Networks are smaller sub-groups of the ISTR. These groups focus on their region and the specific challenges that confront non-profits agencies operating in their corner of the globe.  There are currently five Regional Networks representing Asia/Pacific, Africa, Europe, Arab-Speaking countries, and Latin America and the Caribbean (International Society of Third Sector Research).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Ferenc Farkas:  Farkas is a member of the board of directors for the ISTR  and  a full time professor and former dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics of Pécs University in Hungary.  He has been a member for ten years and served as the local organizer of the 1st International Conference of ISTR in 1994.  He has participated in four additional ISTR conferences.
  • Alan F. Fowler:  Fowler is the former president of The International Society of Third-sector Research and Development and Researcher and Advisor for the Third -Sector, South Africa.  Along with these two titles, Fowler has authored two books and edited three others on the subject of the third-sector.
  • Leilah Landim:  Landim is the president elect of the ISTR. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology and is currently professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.  For the last twenty years Dr. Landim has conducted research on themes related to civil society organizations in a Brazilian context.  She has written many articles and books on NGOs, social movements, third sector, giving and volunteering, women and philanthropy, civil society and public policy.
  • Kathleen D. McCarthy:  McCarthy is the elected secretary of the ISTR.  She is Professor of History and founding director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy and Civil Society at The Graduate School of the City University of New York.  Professor McCarthy is the author and editor of many books and articles on U.S. and international philanthropy. 

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Asia Pacific Philanthropy Information Network is a group that seeks to distribute new information about philanthropy and the Third Sector within the Asia/Pacific region.  APPIN also attempts to build strong networks between researchers looking for information on the third sector in their region.  APPIN is a product of the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium
  • The Aspen Institute, founded in 1950, is an international nonprofit that seeks to foster enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue. Through seminars, policy programs, conferences and leadership development initiatives, the Institute and its international partners work to promote nonpartisan inquiry and exploration of current values (
  • ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) is a membership organization that promotes practical research related to the field of philanthropy and nonprofit management.  The Association's annual conference offers an opportunity for sharing significant research in the field.  Membership in the ARNOVA includes scholars and practitioners whose goals are similar to that of the ISTR (
  • Center for Civil Society is based out of the London School of Economics and Political Science.  The LSE Center for Civil Society was founded in October 1999 as a research and teaching unit within the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics.  Previously, this organization was titled the Center for Voluntary Organization.  The new Center will remain at the forefront of this rapidly growing field in the areas of research, teaching, policy analysis, and professional education, while continuing to expand its international presence, focus, and range of activities (

Related Web Sites

CIVICUS Web site, at, offers news research, toolkits and a forum in several formats for members to share ideas.  The site attempts to bring citizens together in an effort to improve civil society, and advance regional, national, and international initiatives.

The Global Philanthropy Forum Web site, at, brings together foundation leaders, NGOs, individual donors, and agents of change to learn more about opportunities for international philanthropy.  The site offers publications and information on starting international philanthropy initiatives and events, as well as a forum for donors to network and learn about initiatives around the world.

Grantmakers Without Borders Web site, at, offers links to resources for international philanthropy organized by donor organizations, organized philanthropy, international news, economics and finance, statistics, and think tanks.

Bibliography and Internet Sources 

Elison, Peter R. ”Comparative Voluntary Sector Research.” Non-Profit Voluntary Sector Research, 2002, Accessed 1 October, 2004.                            

The Global Philanthropy Partnership, Accessed 1 October, 2004.                                                                      

The Global Philanthropy Partnership. 2003 Annual Report. Accessed 1 October, 2004.

The International Society of Third Sector Research. Accessed 1 October, 2004.                                                                                                            

MacDonald, Grant. “Non-Profit Sector Leadership Program” Dalhousie University News Letter,  Fall 2004 , Accessed 1 October, 2004.                                     

Research Center for Volunteering and Welfare of Beijing University. Accessed 1 October, 2004.  

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.