Document Type


Publication Date



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Social Work


There is emerging broad agreement among social, political and economic sciences that the institutions of modern society can be divided into three sectors: state, market and the awkwardly named “third sector”, but there is little agreement on the nature of the latter. This book details commons theory as a theoretical basis for understanding both the third sector and the organizations and institutions of which it is composed. In the first chapter, a number of existing perspectives on nonprofit organizations and voluntary action are examined. Chapter Two proposes the commons theory emerging from Hardin’s tragedy of the commons as a potential metaphor for both the third sector and the voluntary associations that are said to be the most distinctive and defining organizations of the sector. Professionally staffed, service-providing nonprofit corporations (nonprofit firms) as ideal types are relatively peripheral. In Chapter Three, a brief historical survey demonstrates that five dimensions that define the ancient Greek concept of koinonia politike also define key dimensions of the modern third sector or commons and the distinctive organizations and institutions of voluntary action of which it is composed. The remaining chapters examine a wide variety of related issues and concerns unified by the concept of the commons including politics, economics, gift exchange, volunteer labor, prosocial behavior and a distinctive set of values characteristic of commons. A distinctive category of common goods characteristic of the third sector is located between public goods, an ideal type of the state, and private goods, characteristic of business firms and households.


This is the full text of the 1992 book, including indexes. Page numbers in the index do not correspond with the PDF numbering, but indexed terms can be located in the text with the search features of Acrobat Reader or other PDF reading software. The book was named the outstanding new book in Philanthropy in 1994. A e-book sequel was published in 2013 under the title Voluntary Action in New Commons.



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