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
More data and research
- Our research briefing on civil society explores a broader range of civil society organisations for which data is more fragmented and less consistent.
- The latest below-the-radar organisations report finds and explores grassroots non-profit organisations operating at the local community or neighbourhood level.
- The Pro Bono Economics paper What’s missing evaluating social sector data gaps.
- Posts by former NCVO data manager, Lisa Hornung, on:
Read these articles and publications that have informed our thinking:
- The Voluntary Sector in the UK, J.Kendall and M.Knapp (1996)
- Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector, L.H Salamon, H.K Anheier, R. List, S. Toepler, S.W Sokolowski and Associates (1999)
- Civil Society, M.Edwards (2004)
- Defining the third sector in Europe, A.Evers and J. Laville (2004)