Understanding the Community and Voluntary Sector

If you are new to the third sector, working in the sector for the first time, or working with or looking for partners within the sector then this is the page to get you started.

The community and voluntary sector, or third sector is huge and incredibly diverse and covers everything from neighbourhood watch groups to social enterprises to national and international charities and everything in between. There are two types of people that you will find within the sector paid staff and volunteers, community groups tend to be run by volunteers and voluntary groups usually have a mix of paid staff and volunteers.

Broadly speaking there are two types of organisations within the voluntary sector part and they are

  • registered charities and
  • non-charitable voluntary bodies


How to recognise a charity

At the moment there are close to 200,000 charities in the UK and about 30,000 of these are subsidiaries or branches of others for example every branch of Age UK is registered as an individual charity though they are part of the main organisation.

Organisations can only be charities if they work in the public interest and not just to further the interests of certain individuals. The must do at least one of the following

  • relieve poverty, disability or distress
  • advance education
  • advance religion
  • do other charitable things that benefit the community

The last is a catchall so, for example animal rescue organisations would come under this category.

There are restrictions on the kind of activity charities can get involved in and the way they are run. For example they can’t promote political views which is why organisations like Amnesty International, which is often critical of governments cannot be charities. The other main difference is that the people who have the overall legal responsibility for running the charity – trustees- are not allowed to receive any financial reward for their work.


How to recognise a voluntary body

There are as many voluntary bodies in the UK as there are charities and they range from local amateur dramatics to internationally known organisations like Greenpeace. The main definitions are that they usually use volunteers for some of it’s activity and that it is not for personal profit – i.e. it does not pay share holders, but it does pay its way and would reinvest any profit back into the organisation or the community. There could be a number of reasons why these organisations do not become charities for example

  • it might not meet any of the conditions for being a charity
  • it could be involved in political activity
  • the people running it might not be ready to apply to be a charity
  • it may be set up to meet a particular time bound problem, or
  • it might be a public body like the Special Constabulary


How we work

In many ways working in the third sector is like working in any other type of environment or business, though there are important differences. They are:

1. Raising money

Like any other business we all need money, however we don’t all have shareholders and therefore the reason we need to make money is not to make profit for the sake of profit, but to continue doing the work we were set up to do. We raise money in a number of ways

  • through grants from public funds
  • through grants from trusts
  • by fundraising
  • from membership fees or donations
  • by selling goods and/or services

2. How we respond to customers

In the third sector customers are often clients and they are the people who benefit from what the organisation does, but they may not always pay for the service, or pay fully for the service. For example homeless people maybe referred to as customers or clients of an organisation like Shelter or Night Stop but they do not necessarily pay. The money to pay for services is either “needs led” or “funding led” and funding led means that organisations will make decisions on the basis of what policy and work areas money can be raised for. But needs led means that organisational priorities are based on the needs of the client, whether or not they are easy to raise money for or not. Some causes are easier to raise money for example children are easy to raise money for look at Children in Need and how much money the television appeal raises in one day to put into charitable trusts, but mental health is notoriously difficult to raise funds for.

3. How we commit to equal opportunities

As a sector we are very committed to equal opportunities and diversity and this affects our policies on recruitment, promotion, pay and terms and conditions. Often our client groups are disadvantaged not only by their situations but also by the way people perceive them, and one of the ways that we help these clients is by challenging these perceptions by changing the way we describe people or things. Our commitment to diversity means that we value all people by being non judgemental and avoiding stereotypes.

4. How we support and use volunteers

A volunteer is someone who gives their time freely without expecting financial reward and they often volunteer because it is a cause they believe passionately in. Many third sector organisations and groups relie heavily on volunteers and these volunteers become stakeholders in their organisations. Some organisations develop membership schemes for their volunteers that give them voting rights at annual general meetings and seek their opinions on future work and services. This ensures that volunteers have a greater sense of belonging and a real say in how the organisation is run.

5. How we are managed

Committees usually run third sector organisations, in charities these are called boards of trustees or management committees and they have legal obligations and restrictions to observe. The committee may meet from once a year to once a week depending on its role and obligations, and the size and nature of the organisation.



We hope this has given you a quick snapshot of our sector and how it is run, if you have any further questions or need any support to set up your own third sector organisation please do not hesitate to get in touch with our Chief Officer – Irene Walker on 01562 67008

BREAKING NEWS :- The Charities Act 2011 came into effect on 14 March 2012. It is the Act of Parliament which replaces most of the Charities Acts 1992, 1993 and 2006 and all of the Recreational Charities Act 1958. The 2011 Act is intended to make the law easier to understand by replacing four Acts of Parliament with one. It doesn't make any changes to the law. Your charity doesn't have to do anything differently except refer to the Charities Act 2011 in your documents.