Man and woman volunteers serving food

What is the voluntary sector?

The voluntary sector, often referred to as the third sector, sits outside of the public and private sectors to focus exclusively on creating social impact and community change.

Other names for the voluntary sector include:

  • the not-for-profit sector.
  • the non-profit sector.
  • the community sector.
  • civil society.

As its name implies, the voluntary sector is largely fueled by the efforts of volunteers who work together to achieve common goals, as well as donations and other forms of monetary contributions, such as grants and fundraising.

Voluntary sector organisations are typically run by independent boards that set strategic priorities and objectives that are based on values, rather than profits. Voluntary organisations operate without influence from private shareholders or governmental mandates.

Why is the voluntary sector important?

The voluntary sector often acts as a safety net to catch people who fall outside of government or other public sector support. For example, vulnerable people without access to safe housing may find affordable accommodation through certain voluntary sector organisations, while people struggling to make ends meet can access food banks or other forms of support or advice.

In addition to offering services directly to people in need, the voluntary sector also promotes and advocates for wider, long-term social or systemic change on behalf of marginalised communities. 

Issues tackled by organisations within the voluntary sector often include:

  • discrimination or inequalities on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental health, physical abilities, and so on
  • inaffordable housing
  • food insecurity
  • domestic violence
  • climate change

The work of the voluntary sector is particularly important as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the cost-of-living and inflation crises.

According to the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), use of voluntary sector services rose during the pandemic, and demand for charity support continues to increase, while resources are becoming increasingly limited. In fact, the NCVO says that the new cost-of-living crisis “will affect every charity – whatever their size or cost.”

The NCVO also reports that the voluntary sector contributes about £20bn to the UK’s GDP, spending £56.9bn in 2019/20.

Examples of voluntary sector organisations

There are several different types of voluntary sector organisations.


Charitable organisations make up the bulk of the voluntary sector, and frequently provide a number of invaluable social services, support services, and care services.

Community groups 

Community groups are voluntary organisations that work to provide a public or local community benefit. For example, groups may organise social events for seniors or young people, or focus on community development.

Social co-operatives (co-ops)

Co-ops are organisations that are owned and controlled by their individual members in order to meet their collective needs.

Community interest companies (CICs)

A community interest company, or CIC, is part of the social enterprise sector. It is a limited company that’s set up to achieve social objectives and benefit a particular community, rather than private shareholders. 

Credit unions

A credit union is a financial institution – like a bank. Much like a co-operative, credit union are  owned and controlled by its members.


Foundations are organisations set up for the purpose of providing grants to charitable or philanthropic projects and similar social change endeavours. 

Religious and faith-based organisations

Churches, temples, and mosques all fall under the voluntary sector umbrella, working on behalf of their communities.

Culture and recreation groups

Youth, arts, and sporting groups are not-for-profit organisations that are typically run by volunteers.

Parent teacher associations

Parent teacher associations, or PTAs, are volunteer organisations that aim to enrich schools for children.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

NGOs can operate locally or globally, and typically focus on large-scale issues such as environmental or social care advocacy, or human rights work.

Who funds the voluntary sector?

While the voluntary sector focuses on its social objectives rather than turning a profit, its organisations still usually need funds to operate. In the United Kingdom, this funding usually comes in from a few different sources, such as:

  • charitable donations from the public
  • grants from foundations and trusts, as well as local and national governments; this also includes the National Lottery Community Fund, which distributes more than £600m a year to community organisations
  • government contracts that award funds to organisations that deliver public services
  • investments and other assets, such as property
  • charity shops

What is the difference between the public sector and the voluntary sector?

There is some overlap between the public sector and the voluntary sector – for example, both aim to serve the public or their communities – however, the voluntary sector falls outside of government jurisdiction and control, and its organisations are focused entirely on their social purpose. 

For example, the NHS is a public sector organisation offering statutory services, while The Health Foundation is a voluntary sector organisation: an independent charity that offers grants to frontline healthcare providers, services, and carers, and carries out research and policy analysis to help improve healthcare within the NHS.

What do voluntary sector workers do?

The voluntary sector relies heavily on its volunteers, but larger organisations often need to hire paid staff to cover specific roles. Voluntary sector organisations, particularly larger or growing ones, are usually structured to include a board of trustees, paid staff to manage operations, as well as volunteer workers.


Trustees are volunteers who help guide the direction of a charitable organisation to ensure all actions align with its vision, purpose, and goals. Trustees are also responsible for safeguarding the organisation’s assets and overseeing strategic decision-making.

Paid staff

Voluntary sector employees are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their organisations. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently reported that almost 1 million people worked in the voluntary sector last year, with the sector’s workforce growing by 3% in 2022 – the fastest growth of any sector over the past decade.


Volunteers are the heart of the voluntary sector. According to the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 16.3 million people volunteered with a group, club, or organisation in 2020/21. Additionally, more than half of the population volunteered their time informally at least once during the pandemic.

Help shape the voluntary sector

Lead change in the public or voluntary sector with the 100% online Master of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of York. This flexible MPA programme has been designed for professionals in public and non-profit organisations who want to make a positive impact on improving public service provision and public life.

One of the core modules on this flexible master’s degree explores the partnerships that help deliver public services. You will examine the opportunities and challenges created by the partnerships between the public and the private or voluntary sectors, and gain the knowledge and skills to critically evaluate public-private partnerships in their many guises.