The “voluntary” sector?

There is a phrase in the English language that I would like to get rid of: “the voluntary sector”. Just to be clear, it is NOT all the wonderful charities, faith organisations and community groups, which are the backbone of our society, that I want to get rid of.  It’s just the label “the voluntary sector”.

Why? I hear you ask. “The voluntary sector” misrepresents us to colleagues outside the sector. It creates a misunderstanding that leads to false expectations around funding and free services. Yes, our sector contains many volunteers, but the organisations still have costs that need to be paid for and indeed, a large part of the workforce are working-age, paid professionals and practitioners who are doing incredibly valuable jobs often for the most vulnerable in society. Because we are such good eggs, our pay, pensions and benefits are typically considerably lower than public and private sector colleagues. Nevertheless, we still have mortgages to pay and deserve to be recompensed for the challenging roles that many of us take on. (In fact, I believe that charity CEOs have a more difficult job than private sector CEOs, but that topic is for another day.)

For this reason, I have long preferred the term “third sector”, but I know other colleagues don’t like this because it implies we are less important than the other sectors. I tend these days to use VCSE (Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise) sector since it is being used by NHS England and more people seem to know it, but I do it reluctantly: I dislike acronyms, plus of course, it risks being shortened to… voluntary sector.

So a plea to my public sector colleagues: the third sector is a hugely valuable resource, delivering amazing support to our communities across Surrey and beyond, but it doesn’t come for free. Please don’t expect it to.

– Cate Newnes-Smith

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