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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1 Data about the voluntary sector

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Figure 1 Getting a picture

There are various sources of information about the voluntary sector in the UK but, as you will discover, it can be problematic getting accurate data on such a diverse sector, particularly as much of it involves small, informal organisations. In Activity 1, Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy at NCVO discusses different types of data.

Activity 1 Collecting data about the voluntary sector

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Watch the following video and make notes on what Karl says about the different types of data the NCVO collects and why they are important.

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Karl highlights how the NCVO collects data using charities’ annual reports, and has a particular interest in finance, the number of people employed and where people work. He also talks about using other surveys such as the Labour Force Survey, as well as qualitative data (e.g. from interviewing people). NCVO attempts to mesh together all the different information in order to gain an accurate picture of the voluntary sector.

According to Karl, the reasons why it is important to collect the data are:

  • Politicians and other commentators have a tendency to forget about the voluntary sector because there is not enough information available on how things might be changing.
  • It is difficult to agree on a definition of the sector.
  • Providing government with more data helps inform policy debates and develop more relevant policies.
  • Voluntary organisations can use the information to assess why they might be different, unique or the same as others.

Building on Karl’s last point about using data, there are a number of reasons why learning more about the features of the voluntary sector can help you in your work or learning. First, if you already work or volunteer with a small organisation, such as a residents’ group, you may have a very different experience of the sector than someone working for, say, Oxfam (which has well-developed human resource practices and huge funds at its disposal).

Second, locating your organisation within the broader context of the voluntary sector provides a focus for understanding how effective and successful that organisation is (and what its future may be). This in turn can help you to assess the impact this might have on your role (if you have one) either as a paid member of staff or as a volunteer.

Furthermore, some organisations are not particularly effective at communicating policy or the reasons for decisions. Issues around change are often difficult to communicate. Examples of change include: an organisation losing a contract, having their budget cut, changing their activities or making staff redundant. If you are involved with an organisation that does not communicate well, then having a broader perspective can help you make sense of the issues that crop up.

If you are not already working or volunteering in the sector but thinking about it, this week will give you a clearer indication of what the sector is like and could help influence your choices and possibly help you at interviews.

If you are interested in doing further learning about the voluntary sector or other similar subjects (perhaps business, management or social sciences) then having skills in understanding and using data will also be useful.

Activity 2 Using data

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Watch the following video and make notes on what Karl Wilding says about how the NCVO data can be used. Highlight which aspects you think would be particularly useful in an organisation you are familiar with.

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Karl explains how the data is useful in situating your own organisation’s context within a bigger picture. He emphasises the role of benchmarking, which means comparing one organisation’s performance against another’s, or looking at best practice. He also mentions how the data might tell you something about the future of your organisation. Interestingly, Karl further suggests that people should bring the data into everyday usage. In other words, people can tell others surprising facts about how many people are paid staff in the sector or how voluntary organisations contract with government.

As you saw in Week 1, the main defining feature of the sector is its voluntary nature but this week you will look at further features and information about the sector relating to:

  • the size of the sector
  • its contribution to the UK economy
  • the activities carried out by voluntary and community organisations
  • the differences within the sector.