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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1.1 Defining the voluntary sector

Thinking about how sectors might overlap.
Figure 2 Thinking about how sectors might overlap

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: public, private and voluntary. As you will see later, this is a simplified version of what is in reality a complex situation but thinking about three distinct sectors helps provide a starting point.

  1. The public sector includes organisations that provide basic public services such as armed forces, policing, roads, education and health. These services are provided through income from taxation and, in the UK, national insurance.
  2. The private sector includes organisations and individuals that provide goods and services and their primary aim is to make a profit; for example, shops, manufacturers, financial services, etc. Profits are distributed to owners and shareholders as well as reinvested.
  3. The voluntary sector is different from the other two sectors because it is ‘not-for-profit’ and is not government controlled. Traditionally, it has occupied a ‘third space’ and sits between the public and private sectors (another term for the voluntary sector is the third sector). The third space is one where needs have not been met because the private sector has not seen it as profitable to do so and the public sector has either neglected these needs or not been able to afford to address them.

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.