This article examines the forms and logic of political activism encouraged by international development agencies in Russia by focusing on the project to promote civil society development. The version of civil society that has been brought into being by western design—the third sector—is far from what Russian activists desired and what donor agencies promised. Despite its claims to allow a grassroots to flourish, the third sector is a professionalized realm of NGOs, inaccessible to most local groups and compromised by its links to a neoliberal vision of development. The article pushes beyond some of the recent polarized discussions of NGOs (where they are regarded as either "good" or "bad") to show that despite its ambivalent effects, the idea of the third sector remains compelling to local actors. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork with provincial women's groups, this article examines local responses to the third sector and considers its unexpected signifying possibilities.