Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 Who are beneficiaries?

A collection of generic images of people to indicate the variety of beneficiaries within an organisation
Figure 3 Beneficiaries of an organisation

You have focused so far on different sources of power and started to think about these in the context of the degree of power and authority you have in your own work or volunteering. You will now look at beneficiaries and the power and influence they might have.

As Week 5 suggested, power tends to be limited for service users. Consequently there has been a growing interest in the voluntary sector (and public services more widely) to ‘empower’ beneficiaries to take a bigger role in their organisations. So this section starts by looking at who beneficiaries are and your experience of working with them or being a beneficiary yourself.

What do we mean by beneficiaries? Generally speaking, these are the people who benefit from or use organisations but, as you will see, this is not confined to the people who use services directly. In health care, for example, beneficiaries might also include the families of patients with health problems.

Activity 4 Problems of definition

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Read the definition below. Note this definition refers to charities but the discussion could be applied to a range of voluntary and community organisations.

Using this definition, identify the beneficiaries of an organisation you are familiar with.

Defining beneficiaries and service user

[A beneficiary is] anyone who uses or benefits from a charity’s services or facilities, whether provided by the charity on a voluntary basis or as a contractual service, perhaps on behalf of a body like a local authority. ‘User’ will mean different things to different charities, and a number of people around the person directly receiving a service will also often benefit from the service. For instance, in a charity that undertakes research into a particular medical condition, the ‘user’ could be the person with that condition, his or her carers, medical and educational professionals offering advice on the condition and so on. Even if support is not provided directly to relatives, guardians or carers, they might have a clear and direct interest in how the charity is run because of their relationship and responsibility, sometimes financial or legal, for the actual users.

(Charity Commission, 2000)
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


This definition encompasses people beyond the actual person directly receiving the service. Other examples could include:

  • employers, if you are involved with an organisation that helps people find work
  • the local or wider community that benefits if your organisation works on wildlife, environmental, faith, heritage or regeneration issues
  • political campaigning organisations could also include citizens and communities
  • a sports club run for local children – the relatives could be seen as beneficiaries as they benefit from having healthier children.

For charities working in overseas aid, beneficiaries include:

  • those benefiting directly from the funding or help
  • those who should have benefited but were not reached
  • the health professionals and civil servants in the countries affected who receive training
  • the communities benefiting from the training.

An issue that may also have arisen as you worked through Activity 4 is the term you used for the person directly receiving the service. Terms used may include patient, service user, mental health survivor, client, customer, consumer, member, resident, citizen and so on. In health and social care, the use of language to define the direct users of services has become quite a contested terrain and people have objected to being labelled in a particular way by professionals.

Peter Beresford (2004, 2010) is a long-term user of mental health services and has written extensively about the problems of terminology around beneficiaries, for example, the term ‘service user’. He is concerned about how thinking about people in terms of their use of services might not be how they would define themselves. Other terms such as ‘the blind’ or ‘the disabled’ are also controversial. This is important because ‘labelling’ a person often has negative connotations.

Beneficiaries are increasingly acknowledged as having extensive knowledge about services because they are on the receiving end of them, so therefore they can make a contribution to service improvement. The success of many services is also often dependent on how the service user responds to the service. In health, for example, the success of a treatment will depend not only on the skill of the doctor but also on how well the patient follows the treatment. The service is therefore co-produced by the doctor (and other health professional staff) and the patient.

Having identified who beneficiaries are, you will next look at how organisations seek to give them more power. This is done through engaging and empowering them.