Introduction to the world of charities

The voluntary sector in the UK is complex and dynamic, ever changing to meet the needs of society and growing at a significant rate as an employer and provider of services.

NCVO Working For A Charity exists to improve understanding of the voluntary sector and to encourage new people to contribute their skills as effectively as possible.

We hope that the information on this website, the questions that we pose to you, and the tools that are provided will help those people who wish to get involved as volunteers or paid workers to find the best way in.

It's an exciting and demanding environment and the individuals who work within it, whether paid and unpaid, know that they can have a real impact on the world and the lives of the people their organisations exist to help.

What is the voluntary sector?

As well as voluntary sector, you will also hear the terms not-for-profit, voluntary and community sector, third sector, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charities. Sometimes these terms refer to the same group of organisations and initiatives and sometimes they don't. In addition there are an increasing number of organisations defining themselves as social enterprises and the wider context of civil society organisations broadens the definition even more.

The broadest definition of this sector includes not only charities registered with the Charity Commission but also small voluntary groups, housing associations, universities and colleges, schools and places of worship, trade unions and trade associations, sport and recreation clubs and NHS Trusts.

For the purposes of this introduction and to narrow your initial job search using this tool NCVO Working For A Charity uses the narrower definition of "general charities" which includes the well known national charities such as NSPCC and Shelter and the vast numbers of local charities serving their local communities.

General charities are defined by key criteria which are that they

  1. formally structure their people and activities;
  2. are independent of government and business;
  3. are non profit-distributing;
  4. are truly self governing;
  5. have a meaningful degree of voluntary activity or funding;
  6. support the growth of a 'civil society' by providing a wider public benefit that goes beyond any membership*.

*(Source: The UK Civil Society Almanac 2009, NCVO.)

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