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The voluntary, community and social enterprise sector

  • Last modified date:
    12 July 2011

What is the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector?

VCSE organisations include small local community and voluntary groups, registered charities both large and small, foundations, trusts and the growing number of social enterprises and co-operatives. These are often also referred to as third sector organisations or civil society organisations.

The voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector is diverse in size, scope, staffing and funding of organisations. It provides a broad range of services to many different client groups. However, VCSE sector organisations share common characteristics in the social, environmental or cultural objectives they pursue, their independence from government, and the reinvestment of surpluses for those objectives.

VCSE organisations play critical and integral roles in health and social care including as providers of services; advocates; and representing the voice of service users, patients and carers. These pages offer an overview of the work the Department of Health is undertaking to support VCSE organisations and maximise their contribution to improving the health and well-being of the population of England.

Role of the voluntary sector in health and social care

The VCSE sector makes a substantial contribution to the delivery of high quality health and social care services. They have a strong track-record of designing services based on insight into clients’ needs, and are often well placed to respond flexibly to those needs. In 2007, it was estimated that around 35 thousand VCSE sector organisations were providing health and/or social care throughout England.

Third Sector Market Mapping Report

This report contains the results of research commissioned from IFF Research Ltd by the Department of Health to examine the potential contribution that third sector organisations can make to the delivery of health and social care. The research involved surveys of third sector organisations and local authorities. The results will be used to inform implementation of the Third Sector Commissioning Taskforce’s conclusions and the application of its outputs

The DH Voluntary Sector and Social Enterprise Programme

The DH Voluntary Sector and Social Enterprise Programme was set up with the aim of maximising the extent to which third sector organisations are able to achieve their full potential in contributing to improved health and well-being services and outcomes.

The voluntary sector and social enterprise sounding board

The Department of Health is supported by an external Sounding Board, which provides an independent reality-check and ensures the Department’s Voluntary Sector and Social Enterprise Programme is positioned effectively within the wider third sector partnership agenda.  It has a wide membership from across the third sector together with members from the NHS and social care.  The Sounding Board is chaired by John Adams OBE (General Secretary, Voluntary Organisations Disability Group), with Paul Hodgkin (GP and CE of Patient Opinion) as vice-chair

Joint learning events

The Department of Health delivers a programme of ‘learning events’ that bring together policy leads and voluntary and community sector and social enterprise organisations at key points in the formation and development of policy. The learning events provide a mechanism for third sector organisations to inform and influence DH policy and to increase their own understanding of the policy intent in the health and social care environment.

If you would like to be kept informed of future events and receive Third Sector Update and News please register your details with us

Strategic Partner Programme

The Strategic Partner Programme is a programme of collaborative activity that seeks to support the wider sector through improving the capability and support through national organisations and networks. Each organisation is grant funded to support their capacity to deliver an agreed programme of work, in partnership with both the Department and the other organisations involved, that supports the wider third sector working in health and social care.

Third sector update and news

Produced by the Department of Health's Third Sector Partnership Team, the newsletter aims to:


  • Raise awareness of specific actions the Department of Health (DH) is undertaking to support the third sector in the context of wider DH objectives and service reform agenda, for example, Third Sector Investment Programme.
  • Draw attention to and explain wider DH/reform programmes, which have implications for third sector organisations.
  • Highlight the broad national strategies where there is the clear potential for third sector organisations to contribute to delivery.

To receive Third Sector Update and News please complete the learning events registration form

Third Sector Investment Programme

The Third Sector Investment Programme was developed following the Department’s ‘strategic review of funding and investment to third sector organisations’ and has redefined the purpose and role of DH funding to the sector. This currently includes:

The Innovation, Excellence and Service Development Fund - this fund seeks to support third sector innovation, promote and embed excellence and provide investment to grow quality sustainable services; to inform national policy, and support the sector’s role in improvement and innovation. The fund clearly identifies the need for TSOs to engage locally with commissioners and other partners to ensure provision is developed that meets locally identified needs and successful projects have the potential to be sustained through local commissioning arrangements.

The Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund – this provides two distinct grant funding schemes:

  • a local grant scheme aimed at supporting volunteering in health and social care and;
  • a national grant scheme for national organisations invited to apply for more substantial awards to deliver more strategic or developmental volunteering programmes.

In 2010 the fund awarded £550,000 to 43 organisations through the local scheme. The 2011 scheme has just opened for applications. The first national scheme opened for applications in late 2010 and will award grants in summer 2011.  The fund replaces the Opportunities for Volunteering scheme that has been in existence since 1982.

On 20 December 2011 the Department of Health opened a one-off Financial Assistance Fund to provide support to voluntary sector organisations delivering or supporting health and social care who were experiencing significant financial hardship in 2010/11.  Over 500 applications had been received when the Fund closed on 19 January 2011.  All applicants have been notified of their organisation's outcome.

The Strategic Partner Programme

The compact on relations between Government and civil society organisations in England

The Compact is the agreement which governs relations between the Government and civil society organisations, such as charities, in England. It aims to encourage successful partnership between the Government and civil society organisations to ensure better outcomes for citizens and communities. Civil society organisations, along with citizens and communities, are at the heart of the Big Society.

The Compact was re-launched in December 2010 by Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society and Simon Blake, Chair of Compact Voice.

The renewed Compact can be found on the Cabinet Office website, pdf version below.

Strategic vision for volunteering in health and social care

The Department of Health will shortly publish its strategic vision for volunteering - 'Social action for health and well-being: building co-operative communities', which will set out the Government's long-term vision for social action, and in particular volunteering, in support of health and well-being, linked to health, public health and social care reforms and the Coalition Government's Big Society agenda.

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