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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1 What is voluntary about the voluntary sector?

What do the following organisations have in common?

Leaflets from different voluntary organisations
Figure 1 Different voluntary organisations

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 registered charity. Furthermore, the British Museum was established by the government and, although a charity, it is not regulated by the Charity Commission.

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 social welfare. This course includes examples not only of organisations covering social welfare but also those covering arts and leisure, heritage, conservation, the environment, sports and so on. Therefore, the term ‘voluntary sector’ is used here more as a shorthand way of covering those diverse organisations, large or small, international or national, that operate on a not-for-profit basis and offer a wider public benefit. You will look further into the idea of sectors later but first you’ll examine what ‘voluntary’ might mean in relation to these organisations.

Voluntary nature

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 professionalised too.

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):

  • that are run by unpaid trustees
  • whose funding comes from donations or grants
  • that may be assisted by volunteers.

You will now do an introductory activity, which starts to explore what ‘voluntary’ means in the context of the voluntary sector.

Activity 1 Understanding ‘voluntary nature’

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

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:

  1. Does your chosen organisation have a board of unpaid trustees? What do the trustees do?
  2. Where does the organisation’s funding come from? For example, is it funded by donations from the public, membership fees or grants from government?
  3. Does the organisation involve volunteers in running its services?
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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.):

  • The National Trust is a large charity covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They care for historic houses, gardens, ancient monuments, countryside, coastline, villages and more.
  • Trustees: the National Trust has a board of unpaid trustees who agree plans and hold staff to account for their delivery. They also have a council with elected and appointed members.
  • Funding: the National Trust’s funding comes from membership fees (it has 3.7 million members!), donations, legacies and revenue from their commercial operations (shops, holiday cottages, cafés, etc.). They do not directly receive money from government, whereas many charities do – particularly in the form of contracts for delivering services.
  • Volunteers: the National Trust involves volunteers right across their operations. They have 61,000 volunteers.

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.