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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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3.1 Is the voluntary sector distinctive?

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:

  • voluntary sector organisations are perceived as more trustworthy
  • the people involved in setting up voluntary sector activities have distinctive values
  • voluntary organisations have distinctive governance and stakeholder arrangements.

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.