Civil society is a term much broader in scope than just the third sector. In Estonia civil society refers to the self-initiated cooperation of people for the purpose of pursuing their interests, discussing public issues, and participating in decision-making processes, as well as the associations, networks and institutions which enable such cooperation. A civil society means to have an able-bodied public sector, a strong private sector and an active third sector.
The third (also known as non-profit, non-governmental) sector is a central element of the civil society. It's components are non-profit organisations and interest groups. It's principles are those of self-initiated cooperation and volunteering. The civil society can be split into three cooperating sectors. The public sector deals with protecting the public good, shaping respective policies, legislature etc. on both local and the state level. The business sector is engaged in profiteering from enterpreneurship. Finally, the third sector can be according to recent trends further split into two.
There is the professional non-profit sphere where paid workers are engaged in lobbying, advocacy and other services. Then there is the voluntary sphere in which representatives from the other two sectors manifest their civic initiative through voluntarism. The entities that operate in the non-profit sector are non-profit organisations (NGO), foundations and membership associations. Estonian nonprofits are active in all possible fields: most in sport and culture, many in social services, health and environment, equal number in civic rights, education and local development, fewer in philanthropy, policy analysis, etc. Quite many are functioning as business and professional associations.
Similarly to other countries, Estonian associations and foundations perforn as service providers, advocacy groups, grant makers, societies, think tanks, institutes, clubs, networks and umbrella organizations. Although most organizations are registered in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the percentage of registered organizations in the 15 counties in Estonia matches the percentage of people living in the counties.
Estonia boasts an enormous number of registered, nonprofit organizations (26 198 associations and 788 foundations for a total of 26 986, May 1, 2008), the number including also about 12 000 housing associations. Of the remaining 11 000 organizations about 1 500 are actual public benefit organizations. It is estimated that about 28 000 people or 4-5% of the Estonian workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector.