Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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Introducing the voluntary sector

3 What is the voluntary sector’s distinctive value?

A debate that rages among academics, politicians, other commentators and the voluntary sector itself is whether the voluntary sector has distinctiveness or distinctive value. It could be argued that all three sectors are distinctive in their own way but what are the elements that make up the voluntary sector and make it special, and why does it matter? You will return to this idea throughout the course, particularly in Week 2 where you look at values in more detail.

The word ‘value’ has more than one meaning: it can relate both to monetary value and to ‘giving value for money’. In terms of the voluntary sector, it could be used to assess how staff, volunteers and the services they provide are valued. There is also increasing interest in the concept of social value. This refers to value added beyond financial considerations, such as wider benefits for local communities (similar to the examples of social enterprise in Activity 2).

You will use the activity and discussion here as a way of starting to think about the ideas around distinctive value.

Activity 4 What is distinctive?

Allow approximately 10 minutes

Start by thinking about what ‘distinctive’ means in general terms – you might want to look in a dictionary for help with this. Then write down some key words that could describe what makes the voluntary sector distinctive.

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Now watch this video in which Martha Lane Fox discusses her understanding of distinctiveness. Martha Lane Fox is Chancellor of The Open University and supports many charities working with human rights, women’s rights and digital skills.

Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk1_activity4_martha_ou_pro_res_master_edited.mp4
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I think it’s really interesting to consider where the boundaries between all these organisations are either being drawn or actually being eroded. And to me, I sort of always rebel in categorising things too much, because you get lots of corporations that are doing a huge amount of voluntary work. I’m on the board of Marks & Spencer. We have a big programme to help young people get into work. And people in the company are giving up their time to help do that. Where does that sit in kind of categorisation? And then right through to my organisation, ‘Go ON UK’, which is funded by the corporate sector. We pay a small team centrally, but we have lots of volunteers locally. So I’m not sure these categorisations are very useful. But I think it is useful to remember about the contribution of people giving their time for free, wherever you draw those boundaries, and to make sure that we as a society do everything we can to encourage more people to recognise the valuable contribution people are making.
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Finally, compare your list of key words with ours.

  • How many of these words also apply to the public or private sectors?
  • Is it helpful to try to think of the voluntary sector as different or special?


Did you have any of these words?

word list word list
cause social value
driven special
feelings trusted
innovative value beyond monetary
motivation value for money
risk taking values
respect volunteer

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