The Invention of the Voluntary Sector and its Consequences

  • Colin Rochester


We have become so used to the term ‘voluntary sector’ that the fact that it was invented as recently as the late 1970s can be easily overlooked. This chapter reviews some of the events of the past three decades to explore the ways in which the idea of a sector has become such an influential concept. The adoption of a new label for what had hitherto been described as ‘voluntary organisations’ or ‘voluntary action’ was very much a product of its era, and it is striking that the idea of a non-profit sector surfaced in the USA at much the same time. The chapter begins by looking at the circumstances that gave rise to the new way of denoting voluntary action in both countries in the 1970s and at the identity and motives of those who promoted the concept. It highlights the role of the reports of the Wolfenden Committee (in the UK) and the Filer Commission (in the USA) in giving it currency. It notes that the idea of a sector was more influential in this country than across the Atlantic, and puts forward two explanations for this — the way in which the idea of a voluntary sector was socially constructed, on the one hand, and the importance of the almost symbiotic historical relationship between voluntary organisations and the state in the UK, on the other.


Voluntary Action Social Enterprise Voluntary Organisation Welfare Service Voluntary Sector 
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Copyright information

© Colin Rochester 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin Rochester
    • 1
  1. 1.BirkbeckUniversity of LondonUK

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