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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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4 Values in the voluntary sector

Having examined organisational values and how personal values fit with organisations, you will now focus on whether it is possible to identify shared values in the voluntary sector as a whole. This week started by stating that values were at the heart of the sector, but what does that mean given the diversity of organisations within the sector? Many discussions among researchers and voluntary sector practitioners about what is unique or different about the voluntary sector highlight that it is perceived to be value-driven, with staff, volunteers, founders, board members and other stakeholders sharing a set of core values.

Volunteers serving food
Figure 5 Shared values

From working on the activities this week with your own values, you might have started thinking about the values that could be considered common to the voluntary sector as a whole; for example, honesty, participation, democracy, fairness, justice, accountability, equality, equity, compassion, freedom, empowerment, rights, solidarity, dignity, integrity, respect, trust, citizenship and tolerance.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) lists what it regards as the shared values for the voluntary sector:

  • a belief in collective action
  • social justice and making a positive difference to people’s lives
  • taking a holistic approach to people’s needs
  • empowering people and making voices heard
  • building social capital and reinvesting financial surpluses for community need.
(NCVO, 2015)

Having a focus on a sector as a whole inevitably involves making some general assertions. Not all these values would apply to all the organisations within the sector but it gives a sense of the main purpose or direction for organisations considered to be part of this sector. Furthermore, having a set of shared values for the sector is perceived to give it an advantage over other sectors, which might be useful in bids for funding and contracts. It also builds an identity and set of goals that organisations, large or small, can share. The NCVO, however, is concerned that the voluntary sector’s values and independence are threatened if it works too closely with government.

Activity 8 Values under threat

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Read through this list (identified by NCVO) of possible threats to voluntary sector values. In the box below are values that may be threatened. Against each value, type the number of the threat you think corresponds to it. There will be different interpretations on allocating these but think about which ones seem to fit the best and which you are most concerned about. You can use each threat more than once and you can allocate more than one threat to each value.


  1. the ‘top-down’ nature of the relationship between government and the voluntary sector
  2. funders preventing legitimate campaigning, lobbying and advocacy either directly or implicitly
  3. funders influencing the activity and direction of voluntary organisations
  4. voluntary organisations relying too heavily on one source of funding or contract
  5. perceived pressures to become more like a business, rather than more business-like.
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Table 1 Looking at threats to values
A belief in collective action 2, 3
Social justice and making a positive difference to people’s lives2
Taking a holistic approach to people’s needs4, 5
Empowering people and making voices heard1, 5
Building social capital and reinvesting financial surpluses for community need5

We have suggested some answers but all the threats are equally important and could affect all the values. The part of the voluntary sector in which you work or volunteer, or have an interest in, may have influenced how you perceived the threats: some organisations are very dependent on government contracts and may feel restricted in activities beyond meeting the terms of the contract.