Opinion: Hot issue - Is the 'voluntary sector' a concept that covers too many interests?

A new consultation from the NCVO will ask whether there is any such thing as a 'voluntary sector', raising the question of whether, for example, Cancer Research UK and a local village hall really have anything much in common

YES - Andrea Westall, deputy director, New Economics Foundation

However, the term voluntary sector as currently used is too narrow since it tends to be equated simply with registered charities. 'Voluntary and community sector' is often used to recognise less formal organisations, many of which engage in mutual or self-help activity for which a charitable trustee governance model would be inappropriate. The term voluntary sector as defined by the Deakin Commission covered a wide range of activities, from service delivery to advocacy, self-help and mutual association, but the mutual aspects have been underplayed. However, with this broad conception it is hard to define any discrete voluntary sector as such.

There are some core principles such as 'voluntary action' or 'public benefit', but these exist beyond charities. Across the third sector, organisations show certain characteristics to a greater or lesser extent, such as altruism, mutuality, advocacy, relative levels of public and private benefit and professionalism. 'Voluntary sector' as a term implies a discrete set of organisations, but its diversity implies that in some circumstances it may be better to refer to a broader civil society or third sector and at others to refer to more discrete types of organisation or activity.

YES - Ben Hughes, chief executive, Bassac

Activities that take place within the voluntary sector have become more sophisticated, complex and significant. The shift towards voluntary organisations delivering mainstream public services has further stretched the reach of voluntary and community sector activity. The public service agenda is as different to the emphasis on shaping social change as those features that distinguish the commercial and public sectors. Of course there are overlaps - and it's important that these are seen as opportunities for mutual learning.

But distinctions are important to help define accountability, to be clear about purpose and to maintain credibility. There are increasing and sometimes conflicting interests within the voluntary sector. These are particularly acute at the community level. We need the definition of community sector to distinguish between the predominantly service-providing voluntary sector and those organisations that work in neighbourhoods to build communities and support social change. To maintain the critical community voice central to achieving lasting social change, we need a robust framework that supports diverse local interests - hence the need for the community and voluntary sectors.

NO - Richard Fries, trustee of TimeBank and visiting fellow, LSE Centre for Civil Society

Behind the diversity of the 'baggy monster' of national institutions and community bodies, specialist service providers, social enterprise organisations and campaigning pressure groups lies the common factor of commitment to a purpose, not to profit. The purposes of voluntary bodies cover many unrelated issues; they may even conflict. Diversity is a strength, but its ethos makes the voluntary sector a distinctive third sector alongside the public and private sectors. The concept is invaluable in winning wider public recognition and impact for voluntary action.

There are dangers. Voluntary organisation must be rooted in voluntary action. The professionalism of the voluntary sector needs public understanding, but alongside citizen involvement. The sector must provide space for private individuals to pursue their passions effectively and constructively. Many passions are private, part of the rich texture of society. At the extreme, however, they can threaten the integrity of society. How the balance between freedom and security is struck is a crucial issue facing the sector today.

Public-spirited voluntary action needs an effective legal framework that commands public confidence and understanding.

YES - Sarah Benioff, chief executive, Community Development Foundation

First of all, the 'voluntary sector' should be the 'voluntary and community sector', although many forget this critical distinction. Community sector organisations often spring up organically, responding to a pressing local problem or common interest, and are frequently developed and led by volunteers.

With limited paid staff and premises, and budgets under £10,000, many fall off the 'voluntary sector' radar screen. However, Home Office research has suggested there are an average of at least five community or voluntary organisations per 1,000 people, and approximately four of these would be considered part of the community sector. In terms of aggregate volunteering, these small groups account for at least half the manpower deployed by the whole voluntary and community sector. It is not just the sheer number of community groups that merit our attention; these groups are working on myriad community-led issues. It is this vibrant, community-led mixture of activities that is the strength of the community sector. And participating in these smaller groups is often the first step linking individuals to the wider community, leading to greater and more formal public participation.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus