What does the voluntary sector mean?


It’s challenging to define what the voluntary sector is or indeed to decide what to call it

  • The term ‘voluntary sector’ is not widely understood, and neither are alternatives such as ‘third sector’ or more recently ‘social sector’. This is largely because of its huge diversity and the increasing blurred boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors. For example, public sector bodies now commission private companies and voluntary organisations to deliver services traditionally provided directly by central or local government.
  • The general public is probably more familiar with the term charity sector, but it only includes registered charities and fails to capture any other organisational form.
  • This issue of definition has been a challenge for some time and is unlikely to go away. In years to come, the use of different terms will continue to be the object of discussion and debate, and to reflect changes in the practice and policy context.

Our working definition

In the Almanac, the voluntary sector includes organisations that have six features in common

While recognising that there is no perfect term or definition, the Almanac has chosen to focus on organisations that meet the following criteria (see below).

  • However, there is no single administrative database for all voluntary organisations. The most comprehensive available is the Charity Commission register of charities, on which the figures produced for the Almanac are largely based.
  • So, when the Almanac refers to the voluntary sector or voluntary organisations we are in fact referring to what we call ‘general charities’ , that is registered charities minus a number of excluded charities that do not meet the list of criteria above - for instance, non-departmental public bodies or universities.

Looking more broadly

  • ‘Civil society’ is another contested term. In the context of the Almanac, civil society is used to talk about a far broader range of organisations than described above, from faith groups and sports clubs to co-operatives and housing associations.
  • The voluntary sector is at the heart of civil society, as shown in the diagram below which positions the different types of civil society organisations according to their distance from the state, the market, and communities.
  • Recent years have seen the development of ‘hybrid’ organisations that share the characteristics of more than one sector. A good example of this trend are social enterprises – businesses with social objectives – reinvesting the money they make back into their business or the local community.
  • There are an estimated 390,000 civil society organisations. However, this number excludes estimates for informal organisations and groups, ranging between 600,000 and 900,000.

The voluntary sector is at the heart of civil society, a far wider range of organisations

More data and research

Notes and definitions

The Almanac analysis is based on ‘general charities’, which includes most but not all (84%) of organisations registered with the Charity Commission and recognised as charitable in law. The ‘general charities’ definition was constructed as part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey of Charitable Organisations in 1995 for the UK National Accounts.

See our section on methodology for more information on the ‘general charities’ definition used throughout the Almanac