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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1.2 Social enterprise

One growth area in the economy is social enterprise. Although social enterprise encompasses businesses that generate profits, these businesses are specifically set up to fulfil social or environmental goals. This mixture makes it difficult to say which economic sector would be their natural home.

Activity 2 Looking at social enterprise

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Watch this promotional video about social enterprise and answer the following questions:

  • What activities do social enterprises get involved with?
  • Which elements are private sector-related and which are more like the voluntary sector?
Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk1_activity2_socialenterprise.mp4
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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 social cohesion.

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 welfare state in particular, there is still an emphasis on the role of voluntary action in society. In the UK, governments regularly promote the role of the voluntary sector in providing services, and the role of citizens in volunteering.

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.