Background to the sector and effective organisations

Article modified: September 2017, Author:


An attempt to give some context for the rest of VolResource website, and associated projects. First created March 2006.

Voluntary and community organisations – Overview

Voluntary organisations can be confusing for those new to the sector, or newly given responsibility when they have previously been happily working away in the frontline. It can be difficult to know where to start – that’s what we will try to help with here. Your site editor has thirty years of baggage to put to one side first, so this may require some refinement!

Workers, managers, pundits and consultants will often refer to the voluntary sector as if it is clear what we are talking about. A quick look at our Glossary should show that is not necessarily so. Sometimes referred to as making up the third sector, voluntary organisations can be very different to those in the first two, private business and public authorities. But there are in fact few hard boundaries – small local firms can have much in common with community groups employing staff, and national charities will have similar management problems to larger companies. One way of looking at it is as a 2 dimensional continuum (courtesy of OUBS): informal groupings to institutions and bureaucracies, and social goals/public benefit via mutual benefit to private/economic goals. (See organisational management page for some more in this area.)

VolResource works on the basis that housing associations, academic institutes, trade unions and trade or professional bodies are on the edges, for one reason or another. That doesn’t mean that none of what this site covers is relevant, just that they operate in specific contexts (and their own support systems).

Sector trends and issues

Professionalisation, public services

There has been a lot of change in the sector over the last 20 or 30 years. It has grown in its range and numbers, and it is often thought to have increased in professionalism at the expense of passion, innovation and informality. While this may well be true, there are still a lot of community groups, ad-hoc campaigns and new approaches to problems out there. Some may be hidden under new labels, such as ‘social enterprise’, and others not fit government funding priorities so exist on a shoe-string. New regulations around child protection, for instance, can undoubtedly make an impact on how easy it is to set up a youth group but difficulties can be exaggerated and distorted.

Passion, innovation and informality have long been valued by those involved in voluntary groups. But they have both strengths and weaknesses. Poorly thought through ideas, inadequately managed processes or untested facilities can all result in a lot of wasted effort (and resources), and might even make things worse, rather than better. A little time and care before, during and after taking action can avoid many of the pitfalls and should lead to things going forward rather than standing still or going round in circles.

What you need to know

With increasing attention from politicians on what voluntary organisations can deliver, and a higher profile for some charities from recent natural disasters and upcoming new charity law, the ‘operating environment’ is increasingly complex. But most people in most organisations still just need to get on with establishing good practice.

We say ‘good practice’ rather than ‘best practice’ on purpose. The latter is often taken to mean referring to a checklist of policies, set ways of managing meetings or appointing trustees etc, without recognising that every organisation’s circumstances are different. Committee members/trustees with different backgrounds, and even some support organisations, seem to think that management practices they have learnt elsewhere can be applied wholesale. Claiming that your organisation has to start from scratch on everything, because it is unique, is equally a poor approach. VolResource believes that by using some thought, you can learn from commercial businesses, the public sector or other charities, but application by rote is a route to failure.

Find what you want and act on it

If approached in the wrong way the large amount of material on this site could make things worse.

There is an awful lot involved in running a successful organisation or project, whatever its size or complexity. It can be a daunting prospect. You can’t do everything at once, and trying to do too much can end up with nothing done well, and probably much having to be redone (by you or someone else after you’ve burnt out!).

Work out what is important for your particular circumstances. It can help to talk things through with someone from outside, whether from an official support body or not, as an ‘uninvolved’ view may well spot something you have taken for granted, and just by having to communicate what you are trying to do often clarifies the issues.

Don’t forget about the other issues – perhaps people with a particular interest can be found to help with them or come up with a timetable to work through them. Just don’t lose the focus.



Our approach

VolResource attempts to bring together the wealth of information and support that is available for voluntary organisations, but can be difficult to track down, or even to know that it exists. Things have improved since VolResource first appeared, in spring 1999, but there’s still reason enough for us to continue. We don’t claim to be definitive, and instead aim to be a starting point, particularly on ‘what is useful to those relatively new to the sector or a particular aspect of its work’.

By signing up for the email newsletter you can be kept informed of relevant developments on specific sector issues, new advice and regulations in admin and management plus new online resources as we find them – it can take a little while for us to update relevant pages on the VolResource site.

The site can also be used as a database of contacts. See pages marked with the ‘contact list‘ category.

Fundraising has largely been left to one side, as a particular area of expertise which has plenty of coverage elsewhere – see Fundraising resources.

The site will continue to be developed and updated, as useful material is published, the sector changes or new thinking appears. VolResource aims to use developments in internet and other communication technology to further reduce barriers within the sector which has previously kept useful, hard-won knowledge within relatively small circles.

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