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.

Free course

Introducing the voluntary sector

1.2 Social enterprise

One growth area in the economy is social enterprise. Although social enterprise encompasses businesses that generate profits, these businesses are specifically set up to fulfil social or environmental goals. This mixture makes it difficult to say which economic sector would be their natural home.

Activity 2 Looking at social enterprise

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Watch this promotional video about social enterprise and answer the following questions:

  • What activities do social enterprises get involved with?
  • Which elements are private sector-related and which are more like the voluntary sector?
Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk1_activity2_socialenterprise.mp4
Skip transcript


Stour Space is one of the few organisations based here on Fish Island that actually enables local communities to come and interact. It’s a place for people to come and have coffee, meet their neighbours, but at the same time it provides a space for exhibitions for local artists.
Because of the way the area’s developing, a lot of artists need affordable space, and we have 32 creative individuals and studios here at Stour Space. And they can actually rent from us and, also, we provide them with advice as to how they can create their enterprises, how they can develop enterprises and just interact and network with each other, really.
Basically, we’re a cooperative. We’re a supermarket, as you can see. We have members that come and join us. They pay £25 a year. For that, they get a vote but they also have responsibility, and their responsibility is to give us four hours of their time. And within that, there’s a whole range of things they can do to contribute. So when you come in here, and you actually see people wearing yellow T-shirts and working, it really has this sense of ‘for the people, by the people’, because they’re actually working in their own community, to actually get better quality food in here, to actually tackle things like social cohesion and food waste.
We have some great guys come in, with some really bad backgrounds, that walk away with some fantastic lives and they’ve got a fantastic opportunity at the end of it. Like, these guys, they come, some of them, you see their knife skills, they teach them, they’re coming out of college. You think, oh wow. You look at it like, it’s better than mine. You know what I mean? But no, it’s amazing. And then when you watch them graduate at the end of it, it’s like, it again, it becomes really emotional. It’s like, well, do you know what? I’ve just put a whole year of my life in teaching them, and this is what we get.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
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).


The examples of Stour Space, The People’s Supermarket and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen illustrate that social enterprises cover a wide range of activities. These examples are of a space for exhibitions and advice to creatives, a supermarket and a restaurant. All three are helping local people whether in terms of advice, providing better quality food or training.

The supermarket example is a particularly interesting one as it is a commercial shop selling food (private sector) but it is also part of the cooperative movement, which has a long history and has always generated benefits for its members. It also provides benefits to the wider community by trying to tackle food waste and promote social cohesion.

If organisations are becoming more complex and drawing on characteristics from all three sectors, does this mean that the traditional notion of an independent voluntary sector is disappearing?

One way to explore this question would be to assess data on the voluntary sector, such as the total number of voluntary organisations or the number of volunteers, and whether these have increased or decreased. You will look in more detail in Weeks 3 and 7 at some of this data. This will help you in building your own opinion on the nature of the voluntary sector and how organisations you are interested in fit broader trends.

Despite some concerns that the voluntary sector might be shrinking, suffering from cuts in funding or losing its independence due to changes in government financial support for the welfare state in particular, there is still an emphasis on the role of voluntary action in society. In the UK, governments regularly promote the role of the voluntary sector in providing services, and the role of citizens in volunteering.

This section provided an overview of where voluntary organisations might sit in society today. However, in order to understand why there is a voluntary sector in the first place, and how this has influenced its shape and nature today, it is important to look back at the history of voluntary action and organisations in the UK.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371