The term ‘voluntary sector’ covers a wide variety of organisations, ranging from very small self-help groups with no paid staff to large national or international charities managing millions of pounds. Surprisingly, these very different organisations do share some elements in common.
Why have you chosen to study this course and find out more about the voluntary sector? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about volunteering or working in the voluntary sector and wanted to find out more about it; or you already work or volunteer and are seeking to build on your existing knowledge or skills. You may of course just have a general interest in voluntary organisations, or are looking to develop or refresh your study skills for further learning.
You begin this course by finding out about the nature of the voluntary sector and how it is defined. By looking into the past, you will explore the origins of voluntary and community organisations. You will start to examine what voluntary organisations do and how they contribute to well-being, meeting the needs of different groups and communities (and the environment) by providing services and campaigning for change.
You will also explore how the voluntary sector differs from the private and public sectors, and whether it is distinctive or special. One of the main themes running through the course is how to think about values in relation to the voluntary sector: what its values are and how it is valued. The course moves from defining the sector and its ethos to looking at the components of the sector, what the sector does, how it is funded, the role of stakeholders, power and empowerment, the sector’s beneficiaries and finally the role of volunteering in the sector.
There are many differences between countries in terms of how their voluntary sectors have developed and it would be difficult to produce a short course that covered all variations. The focus of this course is on the UK context but international learners should find many points of comparison. Even where the experiences are very different, it is useful to think about why these exist and what different countries can learn from each other.
Start by watching this video in which the course author, Julie Charlesworth, introduces you to Week 1.
By the end of this week, you should be able to:
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What do the following organisations have in common?
Figure 1 shows leaflets from some very different organisations: the Badger Trust, the Wales Air Ambulance service, a large historic house open to the public, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and hospices caring for terminally ill patients. Other organisations defined as charitable or voluntary might include: the British Museum, a scout group, Eton College (an elite boarding school for boys), Neighbourhood Watch, the Red Cross, Greenpeace, The Open University, a community shop with a turnover of £500,000, a football club for children and a youth club.
This is just a snapshot of some of the diverse organisations, groups and trusts that are defined as charities, voluntary or community organisations. Yet, as you can probably guess, they differ hugely in terms of size, reach, purpose, ambition, status, income and power. They also vary considerably in how the term ‘voluntary’ applies to them. Do they involve volunteers giving their time for free? Is their only source of funding voluntary donations from the public?
Clearly, even without knowing much about all these organisations, you could hazard a guess that Eton College, for example, is not a voluntary organisation in the same way as the Badger Trust! However, Eton is in fact a
Some organisations with a charitable status, therefore, would not be included in a definition of ‘the voluntary (and community) sector’. For some people, the term voluntary sector means organisations with a focus on
It would be misleading to think that voluntary organisations only involve volunteers giving their time for free: many also employ a large paid workforce alongside their volunteers. Many organisations have become increasingly
To be defined as part of the voluntary sector, organisations must include some aspect of ‘voluntary nature’, which the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) describes as organisations or groups (2016):
You will now do an introductory activity, which starts to explore what ‘voluntary’ means in the context of the voluntary sector.
You will look at different types of voluntary organisations in more detail in Week 3 but to get you started, think about a voluntary organisation you know well or would like to understand better. You can search online to see if the organisation has a website that explains how it works. Then write notes on the ‘voluntary’ aspects of the organisation using the NCVO’s definition:
Hopefully you found the information you were looking for – not all organisations have informative websites. Here is an example using the National Trust (n.d.):
You will come back to these issues in future weeks but this section will have started you thinking about the management of voluntary organisations, how organisations raise funding for what they do and the involvement of volunteers.
You will now look in more detail at the idea of ‘sectors’ in society and the economy, how to define the voluntary sector and whether the boundaries between sectors are becoming less distinct.
The term ‘sector’ has been used in the context of voluntary organisations and this implies that there might be other sectors. What are these ‘sectors’ and how does the voluntary sector fit in? Generally speaking, there are three main sectors in the economy and society:
To add to this somewhat confusing picture, the government as well as voluntary organisations themselves also use a variety of other terms to describe voluntary and community groups:
You might want to look up these terms in the course glossary if you have not come across them before. You will come back to some of these terms throughout the course.
Returning to the idea of public, private and voluntary sectors, although it is useful to start by considering these sectors as separate and distinct, they are in reality regarded as overlapping. This means that organisations within each sector often operate beyond their own sector’s boundaries.
This boundary blurring has become of increasing interest and concern to voluntary organisations and other commentators in recent years as governments retreat from providing some welfare services and look to private and voluntary organisations to pick these up. Yet, on closer examination, the boundaries have always overlapped.
Professor Pat Thane has written extensively about the historical development of voluntary organisations. She highlights how medieval monasteries, for example, provided healthcare and welfare for needy people, sometimes working with government to do so, and in the nineteenth century, voluntary organisations provided schools for working class children but these were funded by government (Thane, 2011).
However, it seems that the boundaries are becoming even more ‘blurred’ because services traditionally run by government are being run by other sectors. In the case of the UK, think of how private sector organisations are now running services that used to be provided by local authorities or hospitals (for example, cleaning or waste collection). Public sector libraries are often run by volunteers instead of paid staff.
There are also more partnerships between the sectors: for example, a new NHS hospital built using private sector finance, or voluntary organisations working with local authorities to provide social housing or care for children with disabilities.
In the next section you’ll look at one specific area with blurred boundaries: social enterprise.
One growth area in the economy is
Watch this promotional video about social enterprise and answer the following questions:
The examples of Stour Space, The People’s Supermarket and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen illustrate that social enterprises cover a wide range of activities. These examples are of a space for exhibitions and advice to creatives, a supermarket and a restaurant. All three are helping local people whether in terms of advice, providing better quality food or training.
The supermarket example is a particularly interesting one as it is a commercial shop selling food (private sector) but it is also part of the cooperative movement, which has a long history and has always generated benefits for its members. It also provides benefits to the wider community by trying to tackle food waste and promote
If organisations are becoming more complex and drawing on characteristics from all three sectors, does this mean that the traditional notion of an independent voluntary sector is disappearing?
One way to explore this question would be to assess data on the voluntary sector, such as the total number of voluntary organisations or the number of volunteers, and whether these have increased or decreased. You will look in more detail in Weeks 3 and 7 at some of this data. This will help you in building your own opinion on the nature of the voluntary sector and how organisations you are interested in fit broader trends.
Despite some concerns that the voluntary sector might be shrinking, suffering from cuts in funding or losing its independence due to changes in government financial support for the
This section provided an overview of where voluntary organisations might sit in society today. However, in order to understand why there is a voluntary sector in the first place, and how this has influenced its shape and nature today, it is important to look back at the history of voluntary action and organisations in the UK.
You are now going to take a step back into the past to understand how and why early voluntary organisations were established, particularly those concerned with providing social welfare. This will help to give you a sense of the purpose of the voluntary sector today.
Colin Rochester, one of the founders of the Voluntary Action History Society, suggests that it is important to look at history. Writing in a book exploring historical perspectives on social policy and the role of voluntary organisations, he asks:
[H]ow and to what extent has the nature of voluntary action and its role in society remained essentially the same despite the changing context within which voluntary agencies exist and carry out their functions?
In other words, Rochester is highlighting aspects of continuity and change: many voluntary organisations emerged in the past because government did not provide for the needy. The UK has had a welfare state for many years and the standard of living and quality of life have improved for many people compared with the past, yet the voluntary sector still exists and is still needed.
Some of the best-known organisations in the UK today have a long history and many were founded by
The examples in Box 1 give a sense of the history of some of the charities working in the UK.
Barnardo’s: the founder, Dr Barnardo, set up a school in 1867 for poor children to receive basic education, and set up a boys’ home in London in 1870.
Laugharne Corporation: claims to be the oldest charity in Wales, dating back to 1290. It is a local governing body and one of the last surviving medieval corporations in the UK.
The Red Cross: the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was established in 1863 by five founding members, including Swiss businessman Henri Dunant.
ScotsCare: the oldest Scottish charity outside Scotland, founded in 1665 to help Scottish people living away from Scotland.
Belfast Central Mission: founded in 1889 by the Methodist Church to help local people in poverty.
There are many documented histories of the voluntary sector, with similarities and differences between the different fields of interest such as health, social policy, environment and education. In general, early initiatives came from faith-based organisations providing almshouses, schools and care of the sick. Even old-age pensions and unemployment insurance schemes were administered by voluntary organisations.
The government gradually became involved, helped or took over some of these services. The ethos of the early twentieth century was ‘liberal’, in that the government saw its role as working with voluntary organisations to provide vital welfare services (Thane, 2011).
With the establishment of the welfare state in the 1940s, many services previously provided by voluntary organisations became absorbed by government and the voluntary sector was under threat. However, as the decades went by, more gaps in provision were identified, particularly around poverty, homelessness and assisting overseas, which led to new roles for voluntary organisations. Pressure groups such as those campaigning for women’s liberation, gay and disability rights also emerged.
Professor Pat Thane uses the example of the NSPCC to explain how some early charities were set up:
For example, child abuse was not new in the later nineteenth century, but it took the voluntary National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, founded in 1884 as the London Society) to make a fuss about it, seek ways to rescue and protect children, to press government to make it illegal and punish perpetrators and, eventually, to set up local authority committees to support and care for children. [George Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908, Stanford University Press, 1982]. NSPCC was just one of many organizations which established a
model for the future, by identifying a social problem, seeking viable ways to help the victims, then campaigning for government to adopt these methods, because only the state had the resources to deal on a national scale with challenges beyond the scope of unavoidably limited and localized voluntary action. Far from the state seeking to crowd out voluntary action, it was, often reluctantly, persuaded into action by voluntary organizations. [bold emphasis added]
In the next activity you’ll refer back to Professor Thane’s idea of a ‘model for the future’ by applying it to your own organisation or to one that interests you. You could use the organisation you chose in Activity 1. Applying models or frameworks is a useful skill to learn if you wish to do further study. It can also help you in thinking about the context in which you work or volunteer and in understanding why your organisation was set up.
First, watch this video in which Matthew Slocombe, the director of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), based in London, answers these questions about the organisation. The questions are based on Pat Thane’s description of the NSPCC as a ‘model for the future’.
These questions will help to guide you in thinking about your chosen organisation’s origins.
Now note down your answers to these questions for your chosen organisation. If you have chosen a modern organisation (perhaps less than 20 years old) you may wish to select an older one, perhaps from the list of examples in Box 1.
When was the organisation set up?
What was the ‘problem’ the organisation wanted to address? Has this changed?
In what ways did the organisation help people (or animals, buildings, the environment), then and now?
Did the organisation campaign or lobby government in the past, and does it campaign now?
Hopefully you found the information you needed about your chosen organisation. You will return to some of these issues in later weeks on this course. They are also due to be covered in more depth in another free forthcoming OpenLearn course, Working in the voluntary sector.
If your chosen organisation has a long history similar to the examples in Box 1, what do you think has changed over the years? Alternatively, has there been continuity in the organisation?
Think back to Colin Rochester’s question at the start of this section – it was about the nature and role of voluntary organisations: has your example organisation remained the same despite the changing context?
These are issues to think about as you move on to the next section on the distinctiveness of the voluntary sector.
In this section you explored the historical context of the voluntary sector, which showed that, despite a changing context with more government-provided services, voluntary organisations are still needed. Even if an organisation you work or volunteer for (or are interested in) was established only in the last few years, you may know of other, older organisations working in a similar field and therefore be able to identify similarities with yours – even if they were set up in different times.
This attention to the historical development of voluntary organisations is being pursued in a wider context now, with a call for voluntary organisations to consider preserving their archives and thus their history. As the Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) explains:
We cannot write the history of Britain without recourse to the records of voluntary organisations. This will be especially true for those in the future wanting to understand social provision and policy as it operates today, given the increasingly blurred boundaries between public, private and voluntary sectors.
In the next section, you will move back to the present day to consider whether it is accurate or useful to say that the voluntary sector is distinctive.
A debate that rages among academics, politicians, other commentators and the voluntary sector itself is whether the voluntary sector has distinctiveness or distinctive value. It could be argued that all three sectors are distinctive in their own way but what are the elements that make up the voluntary sector and make it special, and why does it matter? You will return to this idea throughout the course, particularly in Week 2 where you look at values in more detail.
The word ‘value’ has more than one meaning: it can relate both to monetary value and to ‘giving value for money’. In terms of the voluntary sector, it could be used to assess how staff, volunteers and the services they provide are valued. There is also increasing interest in the concept of
You will use the activity and discussion here as a way of starting to think about the ideas around distinctive value.
Start by thinking about what ‘distinctive’ means in general terms – you might want to look in a dictionary for help with this. Then write down some key words that could describe what makes the voluntary sector distinctive.
Now watch this video in which Martha Lane Fox discusses her understanding of distinctiveness. Martha Lane Fox is Chancellor of The Open University and supports many charities working with human rights, women’s rights and digital skills.
Finally, compare your list of key words with ours.
Did you have any of these words?
|word list||word list|
|innovative||value beyond monetary|
|motivation||value for money|
Rob Macmillan, from the University of Birmingham, published a thought-provoking piece in 2013 about ‘distinction’ in the voluntary sector. In his work he explored the ways in which others used the idea of distinctiveness in their definitions of voluntary organisations, such as:
However, Macmillan (2013) also highlighted past research and commentary where people have concluded that there are many parallels between the public, private and voluntary sectors, which means the voluntary sector is not as distinctive as many would believe. Therefore, Macmillan argues that it is more important to explore why the sector searches for evidence of distinctiveness rather than looking for evidence to prove its distinctiveness.
This might sound very complex! However, the key issue to take away from this is that for many people, both inside and outside the voluntary sector, being able to argue that the sector is distinctive is a means of giving the sector an advantage over its competitors. This is important when so many organisations from all sectors are competing for funding in a crowded market. Of course, there is also competition between voluntary sector organisations themselves for funding – and each organisation might argue for its own distinctiveness.
If this seems difficult, think about it in practical terms: if you were a funder and had applications from several organisations to consider – and all seemed similar in terms of value for money – would you be more swayed by the one that presented a convincing case around values, being trustworthy and so on?
You will learn more about this in Week 4.
This quiz will help you review your learning on this course so far. You may find it helpful to look back over the week and your notes before you start to remind yourself of what has been covered. You can stop at any time, and come back to the quiz later if you want a break.
Open the quiz in a new tab or window (by holding Ctrl [or cmd on a Mac] when you click the link).
This week introduced you to some of the broader issues around understanding the voluntary sector and, in particular, what is meant by ‘voluntary’. You have explored some definitions about the voluntary sector. You have read about some examples and how you might compare them. You were introduced to what is meant by ‘voluntary’. There was also an overview of the history of the voluntary sector and how taking a step back into the past can help to develop an understanding of the present day environment for voluntary organisations: despite wider changes in society, particularly with the development of a welfare state, there is still a need for voluntary organisations. You were also introduced to the ideas of value and distinctiveness.
In Week 1, you have learned about:
Next week you will find out more about values – at an individual level as well as for the voluntary sector and organisations.
You can now go to Week 2.
This free course was written by Julie Charlesworth.
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Course image: © Katie Hetrick in Flickr https://creativecommons.org/ licenses/ by/ 2.0/.
Figure 1 various leaflet covers: Northern Ireland Hospice www.nihospicecare.com; Keech Hospice Care https://www.keech.org.uk; Wales Air Ambulance www.walesairambulance.com; Bumblebee Conservation Trust http://bumblebeeconservation.org/ ; Badger Trust http://badgertrust.org.uk/; Hughenden House http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/.
Figure 2: queek/iStockphoto.com.
Figure 3: Getty Images.
Video: Activity 2: © Social Enterprise UK www.socialenterprise.org.uk.
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