Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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Introducing the voluntary sector

Week 1: What is the voluntary sector?


The term ‘voluntary sector’ covers a wide variety of organisations, ranging from very small self-help groups with no paid staff to large national or international charities managing millions of pounds. Surprisingly, these very different organisations do share some elements in common.

Why have you chosen to study this course and find out more about the voluntary sector? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about volunteering or working in the voluntary sector and wanted to find out more about it; or you already work or volunteer and are seeking to build on your existing knowledge or skills. You may of course just have a general interest in voluntary organisations, or are looking to develop or refresh your study skills for further learning.

You begin this course by finding out about the nature of the voluntary sector and how it is defined. By looking into the past, you will explore the origins of voluntary and community organisations. You will start to examine what voluntary organisations do and how they contribute to well-being, meeting the needs of different groups and communities (and the environment) by providing services and campaigning for change.

You will also explore how the voluntary sector differs from the private and public sectors, and whether it is distinctive or special. One of the main themes running through the course is how to think about values in relation to the voluntary sector: what its values are and how it is valued. The course moves from defining the sector and its ethos to looking at the components of the sector, what the sector does, how it is funded, the role of stakeholders, power and empowerment, the sector’s beneficiaries and finally the role of volunteering in the sector.

There are many differences between countries in terms of how their voluntary sectors have developed and it would be difficult to produce a short course that covered all variations. The focus of this course is on the UK context but international learners should find many points of comparison. Even where the experiences are very different, it is useful to think about why these exist and what different countries can learn from each other.

Start by watching this video in which the course author, Julie Charlesworth, introduces you to Week 1.

Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk1_intro_ou_prores_master_edited.mp4
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Welcome to Week 1 of this badged course from OpenLearn. In this first week, you’ll find out more about the nature of the voluntary sector. For example, what is actually meant by voluntary organisations, and why do they differ by size and what they do? You’ll also learn about how the division between the voluntary, public, and private sectors is becoming more blurred. Many of today’s voluntary organisations were established more than a century ago, and you’ll discover how important the sense of history is. People often say the voluntary sector has distinctive value, and you’ll find out more about this and why it matters.
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By the end of this week, you should be able to:

  • understand the meaning of ‘voluntary’
  • explain the differences between sectors
  • explain the origins of the voluntary sector
  • understand the idea of value and distinctiveness in relation to the voluntary sector.

The Open University would really appreciate a few minutes of your time to tell us about yourself and your expectations for the course before you begin, in our optional start-of-course survey [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Participation will be completely confidential and we will not pass on your details to others.


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