What is the voluntary sector?

The ‘voluntary sector’ refers to organisations whose primary purpose is to create social impact rather than profit. It is often called the third sector, civil society or the not-for-profit sector.

What do voluntary organisations do?

How big is the voluntary sector?

Is it different from other sectors?

The voluntary sector is independent from local and national government, and distinct from the private sector. Charities are the largest single category within the voluntary sector. Others include community benefit societies and co-operatives, not-for-profit community businesses or community interest companies (CICs), credit unions and small informal community groups.

What do voluntary organisations do?

As a whole, voluntary organisations engage with a huge range of issues – from youth clubs to specialist medical research. Most focus on a particular issue that needs solving, such as climate change or unaffordable housing, or a specific group in society who require support and representation, such as women facing domestic abuse. Other organisations – particularly think tanks and research institutes – may work on a range of issues, but apply a particular philosophical and political filter.

Thirty one percent of the public say that they have benefited from or used services from a charity (Charity Commission research 2017).

Voluntary organisations achieve their aims through a wide range of activities, such as providing services or other forms of direct support and advice to the groups they help; for example running a women’s shelter or providing legal advice. Some also aim to achieve long-term or systemic change. They may work at a local or national level, or globally.

How big is the voluntary sector?

There is no reliable way of calculating the size of the voluntary sector as a whole. However, there is plenty of information about specific categories, particularly charities.

There are over 165,000 charities in the UK. Most are quite small: over 80% have an annual income of less than £100,000, and almost half have less than £10,000. Charities of this size tend to be local organisations (for example parent-teacher associations) and many do not have any paid staff.

Is it different from other sectors?

Voluntary sector organisations exist to fulfil a specific social purpose, whereas the primary goal of private sector organisations is to make a profit for shareholders. Some aspects of the way they work can appear similar to other sectors, but there are a few cultural differences which may surprise first-time volunteers.


The aim of voluntary organisations is to fulfil their mission and work towards the greater good in some specific way, rather than to make a profit. This often means they prioritise things differently than a business would do. 

Consensus is important

Voluntary organisations often need to balance the competing interests of a wide range of stakeholders and will put a premium on ensuring all stakeholders, including staff and volunteers, are in agreement with its goals and plans. This will involve discussion and consideration by large numbers of people with differing viewpoints.

Fewer resources

Voluntary organisations do not normally have large budgets, and the budgets they do have are rarely flexible. People who donate to charity rightly expect their money to be spent carefully and as originally stated. Voluntary organisations therefore need to be creative and do more with less. Volunteers, skills-based and otherwise, often play a role in voluntary organisations.

The pace is different

Things may move more slowly in the voluntary sector than elsewhere. This is because there is an emphasis on collaboration and consensus (see above). Additionally, limited and ring-fenced budgets mean finding resources for new projects takes more time and ingenuity. 


A voluntary organisation is run by an independent board who decide on strategy and priorities. There are no private shareholders and it is independent of government or state

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Guide: Introduction to the voluntary sector
What is the voluntary sector? Who is the voluntary sector for? How do charities work? A guide to kick start your learning about the sector in prepartion for volunteering.
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