How do we define the voluntary sector?

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:

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.

When the Almanac refers to the voluntary sector or voluntary organisations, this refers to what we call 'general charities'.

These are registered charities minus those charities that do not meet the list of criteria above. For example, non-departmental public bodies or universities.

What is civil society?

  • ‘Civil society’ does not have an agreed definition. 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.
  • Recent years have seen the rise of ‘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.
  • A charity may also have a trading arm registered as a social enterprise.

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

A triangular image separated into the state, the market and communities showing the range of voluntary organisations that make up civil society

More data and research

Read these articles and publications that have informed our thinking:

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 12 October 2023