How do we define the voluntary sector?


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, nor are alternatives such as the ‘third sector’. Not only is there a huge amount of diversity within the sector, but there are also increasingly blurred boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors. For example when public sector bodies commission private companies and voluntary organisations to deliver services that are traditionally delivered by central or local authorities.
  • The general public is probably more familiar with the term ‘charity sector’, but this only includes registered charities and fails to capture other forms of organisation.
  • As in the past and in years to come, the use of different terms will continue to be debated and reflect changes in the practice and policy context.

Our working definition

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

While we recognise that there is no perfect term or definition, the Almanac focuses on organisations that meet the following criteria.

Criteria used in the Almanac

  1. Formality: They are formalised and institutionalised to some extent, with a recognisable structure, and a constitution or a formal set of rules.
  2. Independence: They are separate from the state and private sector.
  3. Non-profit distributing: They do not distribute profits to owners or directors but reinvest them in the organisation or use them for the benefit of the community.
  4. Self-governance: They are truly independent in determining their own course.
  5. Voluntarism: They involve a meaningful degree of voluntary participating through having, for example, a trustee board, volunteers, and donations.
  6. Public benefit: They have social objectives and work to benefit the community.
  • 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’. These are registered charities minus those charities that do not meet the list of criteria above - for instance, non-departmental public bodies or universities.

What is civil society?

  • Civil society is another contested term. Based on the definition used in Beyond Charities, civil society refers to a broader range of organisations that play a significant role in society by providing services that benefit the public, advocating and campaigning for social change, acting as a watchdog, promoting civic engagement and participating in global governance processes.
  • The diagram below shows where different types of civil society organisations are positioned in relation to the state, the market and communities. Some, like universities, are positioned closer to the state. Those like sports clubs and faith groups sit near communities and others like cooperatives are closer to the market.
  • Recent years have seen a rise in ‘hybrid’ organisations that share the characteristics of more than one sector. For example, social enterprises – businesses with social objectives that reinvest the money they make back into their business or the local community – can have multiple registrations including community interest companies, limited liability companies, or charities.
  • There are an estimated 400,000 civil society organisations. However, this number excludes estimates for informal organisations and groups, ranging between 300,000 and 900,000.[1]
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of up-to-date, accurate data on the sector as well as highlighted gaps. Our research briefing Beyond Charities shines a light on the state of civil society, especially for subsectors or organisations that are often under-reported and overlooked.

The voluntary sector is at the heart of civil society – which includes a far wider range of organisations

More data and research


  1. The New Economics Foundation (2001) estimated a figure between 600,000 - 900,000 while the Third Sector Research Centre (2011) estimated a figure between 300,000 – 450,000. For more information have a look at this report.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 September 2021