01 New to the sector? What is the voluntary sector all about?

In the simplest way of looking at things, there are three distinct ‘sectors’ –

  • the private sector – enterprises making profits and running as ‘businesses’
  • the public sector – government, councils, health services, the military and more, and
  • the non-profit sector. And it is this “Third Sector” that is often unknown or unclear to people.

Even its name is vague – the non-profit sector, not for profit, charitable sector, third sector, social sector, civil society and more. Organisations within it might be charities, social enterprises, voluntary or community groups or others. And then there are cooperatives, trusts, CIOs, CICs, housing associations, colleges and other structures of organisation to confuse matters further.

So if you’re going to “come into the sector” as a volunteer (or staff member) or ultimately in a strategic or leadership role on a board, committee or steering group, then it’s helpful to understand what the sector is.

What is the Voluntary Sector?

Knowhownonprofit has a simple page describing the sector – start with this.

The NCVO Civil Society Almanac has lots of information about the sector (in numbers) and there is a useful “Facts and Figures at a glance” page here so you can understand the scale of the sector. This expands into more information, and this page is a vital read to see the size, scale and types of the sector.

OpenLearn Works is a great source of learning and courses, and one called “Taking part in the voluntary sector” is a useful introductory course. Find it here. In particular there is a module here which defines the sector and is worth a good read.

Similar to this, the Open University has an excellent free course “Introducing the Voluntary Sector” here which has a wealth of materials to help you understand more.

In 2014 a report was published called “Bridging the Gap” (it’s here as a .pdf). It was designed to help people moving from the business sector into the voluntary/community/non-profit/charitable sector. It’s excellent and useful generally and the earlier pages explain a lot about the sector.

Book: If you can get a copy then this book is very useful (VANEL has a couple of copies that you could borrow). It explains a lot about the sector in its early chapters:
Hudson, M. (2009) Managing without profit – leadership, management and governance of third sector organisations, 3rd edition. London: DSC (via amazon).

Finally, the Charity Commission regulates Charities, so they have plenty of resources worth reading. Starting with “the Essential Trustee” might only be relevant if you are planning to be a Trustee (rather than just join as a volunteer or staff member), but it’s pretty useful in context for what this website and the VANEL Young Leaders Network is all about.