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Government–Third Sector Relations and the Triple Helix Approach: Patterns in the Italian Social Innovation Ecosystem

Cross-Sectoral Relations in the Delivery of Public Services

ISBN: 978-1-78743-172-0, eISBN: 978-1-78743-171-3

Publication date: 29 January 2018


An increasingly crucial role is played by nonprofit organizations (NPOs) as actors of collaborative governance arrangements for both the prioritization and direct provision of public interest services. Ever since the seminal study by Salamon and Anheier (1996), the drivers behind the rise in dimension and relevance of the third sector have been analyzed from different standpoints. It is now relevant to also analyze nonprofits not only as substitutes or complements to “classical” economic sectors such as government, but also the private for-profit sector. The types of relationships between socio-economic actors can be recognized as preconditions for explaining structural developments in knowledge-based economies, with a transformative impact on production modes and specifically on innovation ecosystems. With specific reference to analyses suiting the knowledge society, it is particularly interesting to consider the roles of outcome-oriented organizations as key actors for social innovation.

A relevant explanatory framework, which has gained recognition in recent years, is the triple helix model (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000). This approach was originally employed in analyzing the existing dynamics between key actors (government, businesses, and universities) in fostering innovation and knowledge transfer. The model is rising to be a key reference also for social innovation processes.

In this chapter, we enquire to what extent the triple helix approach to social innovation is diffused in the Italian context, and whether this affects the financial sustainability, collaborative orientation, accountability and readiness for innovation of Italian NPOs. To pursue these research objectives, we employ recent data produced by the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) – specifically, the Nationwide Census of Industry and Services carried out in 2011 and published in July 2013. We intersect this secondary data with a nationwide survey of Italian NPOs conducted in 2013, specifically designed in order to gain deeper understanding of the revenue structures, organizational characteristics and features of collaborative relationships of such organizations – that is, highly contingent aspects at the meso- and micro-level which the ISTAT census does not cover.

Our results highlight significant differences in the behavior and outcomes for those NPOs who adopt a systemic collaboration approach with other actors in the socio-economic system. Based on this exploratory evidence, we propose reflections and indications for future research in the discussion section.



Bonomi Savignon, A. and Corvo, L. (2018), "Government–Third Sector Relations and the Triple Helix Approach: Patterns in the Italian Social Innovation Ecosystem", Cross-Sectoral Relations in the Delivery of Public Services (Studies in Public and Non-Profit Governance, Vol. 6), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 95-109.



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