Cookies on Knowhow Nonprofit

We use cookies in order for parts of Knowhow Nonprofit to work properly, and also to collect information about how you use the site. We use this information to improve the site and tailor our services to you. For more, see our page on privacy and data protection.


Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Community-made content which you can improve Case study from our community

Introduction to the voluntary sector

Are you a new volunteer, member of staff or trustee? This section is all about making sense of the voluntary sector.

This section addresses some of the key questions you may be asking if you are new to the voluntary sector:

What is the voluntary sector?

The purpose of the voluntary sector is to improve  and enrich society.

It exists to create social wealth rather than material wealth.

It is sometimes referred to as civil society, the third sector, the voluntary and community, non-profit, not-for-profit, charity, social and even beyond profit sector. It is made up of many different categories of activity affecting many aspects of society. The various terms are used by different people to include different combinations of activity which can be confusing.

The common understanding behind our categorisation of the sector is that it is separate from government and exists to make a difference to society rather than to make financial profits.

Where does it fit in society?

The term, the third sector, indicates its positioning; that is it sits between government (the public sector) and the private or commercial sector.

The three sections of society

Government/public sector

Where taxation revenues, from companies and individuals, are used to fund the legislature and to provide a basic range of services (the welfare state) in areas such as health education, social welfare.

The private or commercial sector

Where goods and services are produced and traded to make a profit, surpluses of which, if not needed to be kept in the business, are distributed to owners and shareholders, and on which taxation is paid towards funding the activities of the government sector.

There is a circular dynamic between all three sectors - social wealth creation requires material wealth creation for its existence.

The voluntary/third sector/civil society

Home to general charities, trades unions, social enterprises, public arts organisations, community interest, companies, voluntary and community organisations, independent schools, faith groups, housing associations, friendly societies and mutual societies which broadly exist for public benefit and are therefore eligible for a range of income and property tax exemptions.

The size and scope of the sector

According to NCVO’s data site, the UK Civil Society Almanac 2016,  there are 162,965 voluntary organisations in the United Kingdom. About 50% of these have an annual income under £10,000 and around 80% under £100,000. For a summary of the sector watch our video introducing the 2016 almanac or read the video transcript.



Further help and information




Page last edited Feb 21, 2018

Help us to improve this page – give us feedback.

1 star 2 stars 3 stars 4 stars 5 stars 3.1/5 from 2571 ratings

Find out how-to…

How-tos are written by our users to share practical knowledge.

And if there isn't one already you can write it yourself, or request someone else write it.

See all how-tos