Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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Introducing the voluntary sector

2.1 Timeline

There are many documented histories of the voluntary sector, with similarities and differences between the different fields of interest such as health, social policy, environment and education. In general, early initiatives came from faith-based organisations providing almshouses, schools and care of the sick. Even old-age pensions and unemployment insurance schemes were administered by voluntary organisations.

The government gradually became involved, helped or took over some of these services. The ethos of the early twentieth century was ‘liberal’, in that the government saw its role as working with voluntary organisations to provide vital welfare services (Thane, 2011).

With the establishment of the welfare state in the 1940s, many services previously provided by voluntary organisations became absorbed by government and the voluntary sector was under threat. However, as the decades went by, more gaps in provision were identified, particularly around poverty, homelessness and assisting overseas, which led to new roles for voluntary organisations. Pressure groups such as those campaigning for women’s liberation, gay and disability rights also emerged.

Professor Pat Thane uses the example of the NSPCC to explain how some early charities were set up:

For example, child abuse was not new in the later nineteenth century, but it took the voluntary National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, founded in 1884 as the London Society) to make a fuss about it, seek ways to rescue and protect children, to press government to make it illegal and punish perpetrators and, eventually, to set up local authority committees to support and care for children. [George Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908, Stanford University Press, 1982]. NSPCC was just one of many organizations which established a model for the future, by identifying a social problem, seeking viable ways to help the victims, then campaigning for government to adopt these methods, because only the state had the resources to deal on a national scale with challenges beyond the scope of unavoidably limited and localized voluntary action. Far from the state seeking to crowd out voluntary action, it was, often reluctantly, persuaded into action by voluntary organizations. [bold emphasis added]


In the next activity you’ll refer back to Professor Thane’s idea of a ‘model for the future’ by applying it to your own organisation or to one that interests you. You could use the organisation you chose in Activity 1. Applying models or frameworks is a useful skill to learn if you wish to do further study. It can also help you in thinking about the context in which you work or volunteer and in understanding why your organisation was set up.

Activity 3 Using history to understand the present

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

First, watch this video in which Matthew Slocombe, the director of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), based in London, answers these questions about the organisation. The questions are based on Pat Thane’s description of the NSPCC as a ‘model for the future’.

  • When was the organisation set up?
  • What was the ‘problem’ the organisation wanted to address? Has this changed?
  • In what ways did the organisation help to protect buildings, then and now?
  • Did the organisation campaign or lobby government in the past, and does it campaign now?

These questions will help to guide you in thinking about your chosen organisation’s origins.

Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk1_activity3_matthew_ou_pro_res_master_edited.mp4
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The SPAB was first established in 1877, more than 130 years ago, which makes us the UK's oldest building conservation body. Problems facing the SPAB in the very early days were considerable. This was a time when there was no legislation to protect historic buildings of any kind in this country. And also huge threats – buildings were being demolished. They were being harmfully altered. They were being restored, which in the SPAB's terms, means damaged through harmful change. So the society was established to counter those threats through campaigning, through lobbying, and also through showing how things might be done better. Conservation has moved forward enormously over the course of 130 years and more. Today, we have various forms of legislation in place. We have government agencies to protect historic buildings. And we have a whole different consciousness amongst the public about the importance of historic buildings. So inevitably, this has changed our work, the way we operate. We have a formal role now in the planning systems so that we have to be told when somebody wishes to demolish or partially demolish a listed building. Then we have opportunity to comment back to the council. But also, we've grown and developed. We've taken on advisory and training functions. And the whole nature of our operation, really, has transformed over that lengthy period. In the early days, we were very much about pressurising people to do what we thought was right, so criticising them publicly, trying to educate, but really being a campaigning and lobbying organisation primarily. In more modern times, we've appreciated that people often have a thirst for information. So we're about education, providing information. Recently, we've also taken on research functions too so that we're trying to establish best practice through our own investigations and then passing that onto people through all means of communication, from written pamphlets through to social media. Years ago, our first priority was persuading government that there was a need for any legislation at all. And it wasn't until 1945 that government woke up to the possibility of listing buildings to recognise their historic interest and to protect them accordingly. So over time, we've had that lobbying function with government. Latterly, though, it's much more about discussion, collaboration, involvement in new policy preparation, although there are times, still, when we think government gets it wrong and we have to go and shout about it.
End transcript
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Now note down your answers to these questions for your chosen organisation. If you have chosen a modern organisation (perhaps less than 20 years old) you may wish to select an older one, perhaps from the list of examples in Box 1.

When was the organisation set up?

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What was the ‘problem’ the organisation wanted to address? Has this changed?

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In what ways did the organisation help people (or animals, buildings, the environment), then and now?

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Did the organisation campaign or lobby government in the past, and does it campaign now?

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Hopefully you found the information you needed about your chosen organisation. You will return to some of these issues in later weeks on this course. They are also due to be covered in more depth in another free forthcoming OpenLearn course, Working in the voluntary sector.

If your chosen organisation has a long history similar to the examples in Box 1, what do you think has changed over the years? Alternatively, has there been continuity in the organisation?

Think back to Colin Rochester’s question at the start of this section – it was about the nature and role of voluntary organisations: has your example organisation remained the same despite the changing context?

These are issues to think about as you move on to the next section on the distinctiveness of the voluntary sector.

In this section you explored the historical context of the voluntary sector, which showed that, despite a changing context with more government-provided services, voluntary organisations are still needed. Even if an organisation you work or volunteer for (or are interested in) was established only in the last few years, you may know of other, older organisations working in a similar field and therefore be able to identify similarities with yours – even if they were set up in different times.

This attention to the historical development of voluntary organisations is being pursued in a wider context now, with a call for voluntary organisations to consider preserving their archives and thus their history. As the Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) explains:

We cannot write the history of Britain without recourse to the records of voluntary organisations. This will be especially true for those in the future wanting to understand social provision and policy as it operates today, given the increasingly blurred boundaries between public, private and voluntary sectors.


In the next section, you will move back to the present day to consider whether it is accurate or useful to say that the voluntary sector is distinctive.


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