Identify the Three Economic Sectors

9, 10, 11, 12

In this lesson, students recognize that our valuable natural resources are maintained and cared for by government, business, nonprofits, and individuals. The three sectors (and individuals) work together to accomplish what any one of them cannot do alone.

PrintOne Fifty-Minute Class Period

The learner will:

  • Name the three economic sectors in the United States.
  • Identify and categorize organizations and groups within these sectors.
  • Explain why these three sectors are necessary in our society.
  • Definitions of the Three Economic Sectors (see Handout One)
  • projected copy of Sector Circles (see Handout Two)

Definitions of the Three Economic Sectors, and Sector Circle assignment taken from Dr. Mark Wilson's lecture notes at the Learning To Give Project's Seminar on Nonprofit Economics and Geography: The Four Sector Economy: Unit 3. Fall, 1999, Harley Hotel, East Lansing, Michigan.


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Ask the students to think about a natural place, such as a local park, lake, hiking area, nature preserve, or bike trail. Or it may be a national or international treasure, such as the Grand Canyon or the ocean. Discuss the value of natural places, wildlife, and recreational areas. Ask students to think about who (people and organizations) is responsible for making sure those places are cared for, as needed. Have them write a journal entry to begin their thought process on this topic.

  2. Discuss what would happen if nobody cared for the shared natural spaces or if we allowed pollution to destroy our air, water, or land. How would this affect the good of all?

  3. Tell the students that the government maintains some shared places with funds from our taxes, but that doesn't provide enough. Sometimes we pay admission to maintain parks, museums, and paths/roads. Sometimes groups of people gather to address a need, such as volunteers picking up trash in a park or a nonprofit organization forming to protect wildlife. Businesses can also contribute by establishing for-profit businesses that bring people to natural areas. All of these efforts together are needed.

  4. Project or give each student a copy of "Definitions of the Three Economic Sectors" (see Handout One). Read over the information with students and discuss each of the three sectors in detail so that they understand the difference between the three. (Students may bring up examples of government philanthropy and corporate philanthropy.)

  5. Move students into groups of three. Using the organization list in Sector Circles (Handout Two), the student groups write the names of organizations in the correct sector circle on a Venn diagram. Explain that in some cases some organizations may fit into more than one grouping and then they should go into the areas that connect both circles. (To make the organizational list more interesting, substitute or add your community's local organizations.) Students may investigate the organizations on the internet to help determine the economic sector. Once students have completed the assignment, have them describe where they placed the different groups and why. Write their answers on a projected copy of the Venn diagram.

  6. Ask and discuss, "How would life in this society be different if we did not have all of the three sectors?" Students should show awareness that shared environmental resources are maintained with different approaches by the three sectors of the economy: Government, Nonprofit, and Business (as well as the families/individuals who visit them).


Test for understanding with the placement of items on the overhead. If it appears that students were confused with placement, add three extra groups and have the students place those ones again and check for understanding. In their journals, ask students to name the three sectors of the economy and analyze, in their own words, why these three groupings are necessary to the development of our society.

Cross Curriculum 

Ms. Hawley is a High School science teacher from Indianapolis. As a consumer society, Hawley believes it is even more important to teach students the need and value of giving back. 

Read about the service-learning project "Bee" the Steward by students who were taught using this Identify the Three Economic Sectors lesson to guide student learning and action.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Explain why needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society and family.
      2. Benchmark HS.4 Identify, from a given list of functions, which sector is usually responsible for a specific function in society.
    2. Standard DP 04. Operational Characteristics of Nonprofit Organizations
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify the major operational characteristics of organizations in the civil society sector.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Compare and contrast the basic terms and operations of the for-profit, government, family, and civil society sectors.