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The Voluntary and the Unvoluntary Sectors

What is the comparative advantage of the voluntary and community-led sectors relative to the private and public (ie unvoluntary) sectors?

In this short, polemical sketch George Clark suggests that the voluntary sector could be viewed  more positively and thus 'managed' more effectively than it often is.

See also: Husky Volunteers for Social Care
Approaches to learning support – sooper v plod

bulletUnfortunately Simple Categories
bulletThe Unvoluntary Sectors – a pessimistic viewpoint
bulletThe Voluntary Sector – an optimistic viewpoint
bulletWhy Volunteer?
bulletPractical Reasons
bulletNon-practical Reasons
bulletThe Voluntary and the Community-led Sectors
bulletThe roles of the Voluntary and Community-led Sectors

Unfortunately Simple Categories

Many people think in unfortunately simple categories eg

bulletVolunteers are kind-hearted, simple-minded amateurs trying in their bumbling way to do good
bulletProfessionals and Officials are our ‘elders and betters’ who are clever, committed and competent and who know what we really need.

If a ‘professional’ is someone who is paid for what he does then someone who does not get paid is ‘unprofessional’. But there is the implication that ‘unprofessional’ also means ‘voluntary’ and ‘amateur’ and somehow ‘second rate’. Amateur volunteers may be well intentioned and enthusiastic but they do not do things as well as the full-time, salaried, official experts!

Whilst there may be some grain of truth in this simple minded point of view, there is no inevitability about it. This paper suggests that in many cases the voluntary (community-led) sector may be better able to manage some kinds of task than the non-Voluntary sectors.

Consider the situations set out in the following table:


The Voluntary Sector

The Unvoluntary Sectors

Non-cash rewards

Paid in cash

Level of technical competence



Level of commitment



Level of enthusiasm



Level of enjoyment



Influence on ‘bosses’



* Many people in the voluntary sector are ‘professionals’ who freely contribute their knowledge and skills to a worthwhile cause. The voluntary sector also has the option of ‘buying in’ expertise when it is not available on a voluntary basis.

** See below for the Peter Principles

The Unvoluntary Sectors – a pessimistic viewpoint

In the Private Sector (factories and businesses) and in the Public Sector (Government Offices) people are paid money to work ie they do unvoluntary work. In many cases people enjoy what they are doing (especially the senior staff and bosses who are paid very well) and they do it very well: but in many cases (especially amongst the lower ranks and in middle management) the work is repetitive, meaningless, depressing and causes stress.

There has been a lot of research into how different kinds of organisations are set up and managed. This research has shown that many organisations are inefficient and wasteful. Two of the Peter Principles1 capture the flavour of what often goes wrong:

bulletPeople are promoted to their point of incompetence, and thus,
bulletWork expands to fill the time available

If you do a job well you are promoted to a higher job; do that well and you are promoted again; do that badly and you are stuck there. So people are operating at their first level of incompetence and this leads to a lack of enjoyment, commitment and enthusiasm. They become embittered, cynical and possibly even spiteful. Such individuals are soon side lined – the real work is given to more able people. The unvolunteers need the money so they cannot resign. They stretch out the small tasks for which they still have responsibility in a desperate attempt to justify their existence. They keep their seat warm by tying and untying knots in red tape, shuffling papers, and by attending endless rounds of unproductive meetings.

That is a deliberately bleak picture of the hell into which the wage slave to unvolunteerism might descend. In these changing times of ‘downsizing’ and ‘best value’ is it becoming more or less common?

The Voluntary Sector – an optimistic viewpoint

The reward for work in the voluntary sector is not cash. People are not wage slaves. If they do not like what is going on they can easily walk away. If the organisation is not achieving its goals, or if it induces stress or suffering through bad management, then people have two options:

bulletwithdraw their time and effort and apply it somewhere else
bulletraise their concerns with the membership of the organisation and thus make changes

The last point is important. Voluntary Organisations (and this includes most Community-led Organisations) are owned and driven by their membership. They are democratic to the extent of having AGMs at which the Management Committee (the ‘bosses’) are elected. The ‘people’, the ‘workers’, the ‘employees’ decide what the organisation does and how it does it.

Why Volunteer?

In the modern world there is the feeling that people who work for anything other than money are soft in the head. But that is another example of thinking in simple categories. There are many possible reasons for getting involved in the voluntary sector, especially when it involves people making things happen in their own community.

Practical Reasons

People might not be happy about how the ‘experts’ are dealing with various aspects of the economy, the environment or social issues. When they dig into these problems local people discover that the ‘experts’ often have their hands tied:

bullet'Experts' are obliged to deal with generalities and statistics which are rarely adequate for dealing with particular situations. Centralised experts do not have the time or energy to fine tune their policies – OK the village can have new street lights or traffic calming measures - but where exactly should they be located?
bulletThe Central Officials have to do what their bosses tell them and the bosses in turn are influenced by the fads and fashions of central government in Edinburgh, London or Brussels. Elected politicians tend to work towards short term, showy projects and longer term, less obvious projects are thus forgotten.

If local people want to work towards long term goals and to give attention to detail then they have to take matters into their own hands. Voluntary involvement in community-led organisations is a readily available vehicle for this.

Non-practical Reasons

Many people get involved in the voluntary sector for reasons which are not so practical as those mentioned above. It is not easy to put a label on these reasons without sounding impractical and sentimental (wet) so here they are without labels:

To help the community to

bullettake control of itself and be self reliant so that it is obligated to no one.
bullethelp itself so that it is not a ‘basket case’ looking for ‘charity’ from experts.
bulletDIY rather than having others do it for us
bulletbehave as a responsible adult rather than as a dependent child

To help yourself through

bulletacquiring new skills (technical, social and personal) from experience
bullettaking initiative and ‘giving a shit’; making a difference; taking control
bullettaking on a leadership role
bulletsupporting others who are willing to lead
bulletaccepting responsibility for the welfare of the group (eg make the sandwiches, write the minutes)
bulletknowing that you belong to the community. This improves the quality of your personal life and of community life as a whole. People come to care about each other more.

The Voluntary and the Community-led Sectors

Over 26,000 Scottish charities are recognised by the Inland Revenue. Between them they have an income of over 2 billion pounds each year and employ over 51,000 people2. Not all voluntary sector organisation are official charities – so the real numbers, income and level of employment will in fact be much higher. More than 1000 new charities are formed in Scotland every year – that’s roughly four in every working day of every week. These voluntary organisations can be divided into those which serve a community of interest and those that serve a community of location.

The first group tends to be national in scope and the organisations tend to have their offices in the big cities. Many have a special purpose or interest (eg various environmental or health groups) whilst others give information, training and support to other voluntary and/or community-based organisations.

The second group tends to have a local focus and the organisations have their base in the areas which they directly serve. The 14 Community-led groups in Aberdeenshire fall into this category. Most of these began life as part of the then Grampian Region’s Villages in Control project. They have recently been talking to each other and are forming a Forum through which the paid staff is able to exchange information, ideas and experience and a Federation through which the Chairpersons (who are volunteers) can network with each other.

The two types of groups represent ‘communities’ (diffuse communities of interest and concentrated communities of location) and their voices together are making their mark in the new Scottish democracy.

The roles of the Voluntary and Community-led Sectors

The Voluntary Sector is called the Third Sector – the first two sectors being the Private Sector (manufacturing and business) and Public (or State) Sector (local, national, UK and European government)3.

What are the different sectors good for? We live in changing times. The Voluntary Sector has for some time been reduced to little more than kind-hearted old dears in twin-sets giving alms to the poor. This involved giving the poor person a fish rather than teaching him how to fish. The task now is to enable the communities (of interest as well as of location) to be fishermen. But what will they be catching in their nets?

Are there new tasks and occupations waiting to be discovered or will the Third Sector have to steal jobs from the First and Second sectors by demonstrating greater efficiency, productivity and contextual relevance?

We live in changing times. The future is in our hands. Individuals driven by the practical or non-practical reasons outlined above have space to make a difference. AND they are not alone. There are many willing hands and hearts in the voluntary and community-led sector. With shared dreams and caring management harnessing the enthusiasm and commitment of those who are who are clever and competent, nothing is impossible.


  1. Peters T J & Waterman R H (1983) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s best run Companies; Free Press - more...
  2. SCVO (1998) SCVO’s Guide to Constitutions and Charitable Status in Scotland; ISBN 1 870904 54 0
  3. In Lesotho the three sectors are thought to be Church, State and Community! What happened to the Church of Scotland?

Thanks to andrew.bain@mfi.co.uk  for pointing out the iffy citations in the above article:

bulletPeter Principle is:
The Peter Principle concept was introduced by Canadian sociologist Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter in his humoristic book of the same title. In his book, he describes the pitfalls of the bureaucratic organization witnessed during his extensive research into business organizations. The Peter Principle has attained such renown that The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent." i.e.. It has nothing to do with Tom Peters' (and Bob Waterman's ) excellent book 'In Search of Excellence' although they may cite it.
bulletWork expands to fill the time available is 'Parkinson's Law'

Parkinsons Law briefly stated is that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If it doesn't seem that an entire book could be written about this thesis then you haven't encountered the imaginative genius and the stinging comic wit of C. Northcote Parkinson. He is able to use this little insight as an analytic tool to expose much of what is wrong with organizations and why much in both business and government seems at odds with common sense.



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