How is the voluntary sector different from other sectors?

The most obvious difference is that voluntary sector organisations exist to fulfil a specific social purpose while private-sector organisations primary goal is to turn a profit for shareholders. However, in daily practice, working in the voluntary sector is not that different from the public or private sectors. People in all three sectors are working hard to do their jobs and produce a valued service.

However, there are a few cultural differences which can surprise first-time volunteers:

  • Values-led: The best-known, and biggest, difference is that voluntary organisations are not aiming to be profitable. Their goal is to fulfil their mission and work towards the greater good in some specific way. This often means they prioritise differently than for-profit companies. 

  • Consensus. Voluntary organisations are values-led, and often need to balance the competing interests of a wide range of stakeholders. Things will often need to be discussed and considered by large numbers of people with differing viewpoints. Most organisations will put a premium on ensuring all stakeholders, including staff, are in agreement with the organisation’s goals and plans.

  • 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 previously agreed. Voluntary organisations need to be creative and do more with less.

  • Different pace: While not always true, it can be the case that things move more slowly in the voluntary sector than elsewhere. This is because there is an emphasis on consensus and collaboration so decisions need to be discussed and approved by a large number of stakeholders. Additionally, limited and ring-fenced budgets mean finding resources for new projects takes more time and ingenuity. 

  • Informal atmosphere: Of course every organisation is different, but on the whole voluntary organisations tend to be more relaxed, informal environments. People often dress casually and relationships between senior and junior staff can be more familiar. Informal does not mean unprofessional! The vast majority of voluntary organisations are extremely professional.

What our volunteers say

Very different environment from professional career [but I’m]... Very pleased. Like many things, the more one puts in, the more one gets out of it. Still thoroughly enjoying it.

    John Banks, Trustee with Mind BLMK

It is somewhat frustrating compared to my previous work life. There is no sense of urgency that is always present in a more commercial environment... It is far more rewarding than my work life in the sense that I am directly helping people in these volunteer roles and that gives me a very good feeling.

    Martin Gill, Gateway Protection Programme Advocate & Arrivals Role with Refugee Action

Further resources