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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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4 Types of voluntary activity

The course started with examples of voluntary organisations in order to give you a snapshot of the diversity of the organisations that come with a voluntary, community or charity label. One way to distinguish between the different organisations is by looking at the activity they carry out.

This can be examined from two perspectives:

  1. What is the organisation’s main function or purpose? Some examples would include:
    • a.Do they fulfil service contracts for local councils and other organisations?
    • b.Do they campaign for a particular cause?
    • c.Do they provide advice?
    • d.Do they support a particular hobby?
  2. What is the organisation’s principal economic activity (as used by NCVO)?

You will now focus on each classification in turn.


The first classification, based on function, relates to the classic work by Charles Handy (1988) on understanding voluntary organisations. He distinguished between mutual support groups, service delivery agents and campaigning bodies:

  • Mutual support groups – ‘those organisations […] created in order to put people with a particular problem or enthusiasm in touch with others like themselves who can give them understanding, advice, support and encouragement’. Examples include hobbies and sports enthusiasts, or local support groups for people with addictions and health problems.
  • Service delivery – ‘the biggest and most visible of the voluntary organisations’ providing services to those in need. They often have many paid staff and operate across the UK. Examples include the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) and Citizens Advice.
  • Campaigning – some organisations were created to campaign for a cause or to act as a pressure group to represent and fight for a particular interest. Examples include Greenpeace and 38 Degrees.

Many voluntary organisations inevitably fit more than one category: many organisations campaign, even if they have government contracts, while some small mutual support groups might move into campaigning or seek a contract for service delivery. They might have started firmly in one category but, over time, shifted their role.

The world of the voluntary sector has moved on considerably since Handy wrote his book but it does provide a starting point. Furthermore, not all voluntary organisations seek growth, major contracts and so on. They start off small and wish to remain small, often focused on a particular neighbourhood or group.

Economic activity

The second classification to consider is that used by NCVO. They use 18 categories in their classification, focused on principal economic activity. The following list starts with the largest category (by number of organisations) and is in descending order:

  • social services
  • culture and recreation
  • religion
  • parent-teacher associations
  • grant making
  • education
  • playgroups and nurseries
  • village halls
  • health
  • scout groups and youth clubs
  • environment
  • international aid and development
  • law and advocacy
  • housing
  • research
  • employment and training
  • umbrella bodies.

The biggest of these by number of organisations is social services but the group with the most wealth is the grant-making organisations.

Activity 5 Classifying organisations

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Using the above categories of economic activity, answer the following questions:

  1. Choose an organisation you are interested in and try to decide which category it fits into.
  2. Are there any problems with fitting organisations into a single category?
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  1. One example would be a historic garden open to the public and run by the National Trust. This could be put in the category of culture and recreation.
  2. Some organisations will straddle several categories but they would need to select their main economic activity for record-keeping purposes. For example, some organisations might cover research as well as grant making.

You probably noticed the category of ‘umbrella bodies’. These are organisations such as community and voluntary councils in a town or district. They offer services such as training, advice, volunteer recruitment, sometimes even desk and computer facilities. These services are offered to their members, usually smaller voluntary or community organisations that have limited resources of their own.

Activity 6 Umbrella organisations

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Go online and search for umbrella bodies in your local area. Do they exist? If so, what services do they offer?

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Here is an example from an online search typing in: ‘Cardiff voluntary umbrella organisation’:

Cardiff Third Sector Council (C3SC) is the County Voluntary Council (CVC) for Cardiff – the umbrella infrastructure organisation for the third sector in the City.

C3SC’s key role is to provide specialist advice, support, and information to local third sector organisations on issues that affect them, including funding and governance.

C3SC is the voice of the third sector in Cardiff. It facilitates third sector representation on strategic partnerships, including the Cardiff Partnership Board and its Programme Boards and Workstreams. It acts as a conduit for policy information, supporting networks around key themes and areas of interest, with the aim of ensuring that policy and decision makers understand the needs of third sector organisations in Cardiff.

(Cardiff Third Sector Council, 2015)

This concludes the focus on the main overall features (size, contribution and types of activity) of the voluntary sector. This illustrated that there are many differences within the sector and you now build on this further.