What is the voluntary sector?
The voluntary sector and civil society
To understand what the voluntary sector is, it helps to look at it in the context of civil society.
Inevitably contested, the concept of ‘civil society’ advanced by Mike Edwards does however help. This definition of civil society is about more than just a group of organisations, though the role of voluntary groups and organisations is central: it is associational life that brings people together and allows civic values and skills to develop.
But civil society is also defined by values: the values associated with the ‘good society’, which aims for social, economic and political progress.
Finally, civil society is defined as a space: the public sphere where debate and deliberation allows the negotiation of the common interest.
The boundaries between civil society, the state and the market are becoming blurred. This is most evident in the development of social enterprise and in the ‘charitisation’ and mutualisation of public bodies.
The voluntary sector plays a central role in civil society, bringing people together and enabling civic values and skills to develop. Charities are voluntary organisations which benefit the public in a way the law says is charitable. Charitable organisations based in England and Wales have to register with the Charity Commission if their income is over £5,000 a year.
Just over a fifth of charities (22%) employ paid staff, but most voluntary organisations involve volunteers in some way, for instance:
- through governance or a trustee board
- through donations and grants
- in their day-to-day activities
Recently the voluntary sector has been hit by a ‘triple whammy’ of rising costs, an increased demand for services, and an unprecedented fall in income. However, the sector has expanded levels of service provision in the full knowledge that their own income streams were falling. The evidence is clear: the sector swum against the tide and rose to the challenge.
Alongside this, new philanthropic foundations are being established every year. At the grassroots, new ideas and innovation are helping the next generation of social entrepreneurs win support.
Above all, the groups and organisations that span civil society continue to win the trust of the general public.
Find out more about the size and scope of the sector
Policy and research
- Charity law and regulation
- European and international
- Giving and philanthropy
- Independence and values
- Other projects
- Public services
- What is the voluntary sector?
- Working with government
- Voluntary sector workforce
- Tell NCVO
- Getting your message across to Government
- Meet the team