Voluntary associations

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This article aims to help the understanding of voluntary organisations by defining the term, dealing with some related terms, and mentioning some sub-classifications.

A voluntary organisation is a structured group of people who have come together of their own accord for a social rather than a commercial purpose. The structure may be of various legal forms,depending on the local legal framework. The term can include, for instance, sports clubs, welfare organisations, local interest groups and pressure groups. There is an immense range of sizes. Although the possible usage is very wide, it is often restricted to organisations in the welfare field.

In Europe,there is a very considerable body of knowledge about certain types of voluntary organisation, while little is known about other types. The ones on which much research has been done include organisations with paid staff, particularly those which work alongside, or contract with, government agencies, and community organisations operating in the field of economic and social regeneration. Those where there has been little funding for such research tend to be smaller groups, including self-help groups, and those operating in fields where there is not much policy interest.


The Wolfenden Report on The Future of Voluntary Organisations brought the term voluntary sector into fairly common use, at least in the United Kingdom.[1] Conceptually the term has proved useful by directing attention to possible areas of overlap between this and other sectors: the governmental, the business/commercial, and the informal.

The wording nonprofit organization is often regarded as the US equivalent of "voluntary organisation". Seeking a positive rather than a negative description, Peter Drucker wrote that "Non-profit institutions are human-change agents".[2] This narrows the field somewhat. It would not, for instance, include a bridge club, or even, perhaps, an environmental body.

Some definitions and descriptions of civil society appear to make it virtually identical with the voluntary sector. In general, however, civil society is seen as something both wider (as potentially including some activities of statutory bodies, and also unstructured groupings), and narrower (as being more purposeful). See the separate article.

The term non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is in theory identical to "voluntary organisations", but in practice it is mainly used for international bodies and those which have been granted consultation rights by inter-governmental bodies such as the United Nations.

Voluntary workers/volunteers

Voluntary workers, or volunteers, are usually defined as workers who do not receive pay for the work they do, though they may receive expenses. Many voluntary organisations make extensive use of volunteers, and may depend on them entirely, but such use also occurs in the statutory and commercial sectors. It is not unusual for the governing body of a voluntary organisation to be made up of unpaid members, and in charities this is normal. The voluntary sector is, however, a major employer of paid staff.

The English legal system developed the legal concept of "trusts" and from it the concept of "charities" as a particular type of trust. Charities have objectives which are judged to be socially desirable, and experience greater legal constraints in return for tax and other benefits.

Mutual Aid and Self-help Organisations

Self-help organisations (more accurately, mutual help organisations) have been set up by people facing common problems, whether medical conditions, social problems or whatever. For instance, such organisations exist for people with diabetes, bipolar disorder and with twins and for single parents. Typically they offer moral support, advice, practical help such as equipment loans, and representation of their views (functioning as pressure groups).


  1. Harris, M and Rochester, C, eds. Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain. Palgrave. 2001. Introduction
  2. Drucker, P F. Managing the Non-Profit Organization. Butterworth-Heinemann. 1990. Preface