Geography The Voluntary Sector and Geography
Geoff DeVerteuil
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0187


Definitions of the voluntary sector are numerous, but generally agree on the fact that voluntarism is the fundamental component, not reducible to but in relation with the state, informal communities, and the private market. Salamon and Anheier’s definition (see “Social Origins of Civil Society: Explaining the Non-profit Sector Cross-Nationally,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 9 [1998], p. 219) also followed this approach to foreground their own extensive, cross-national study of the voluntary sector: First they are organized, i.e., they possess some institutional reality. They are private, i.e., institutionally separate from government. They are nonprofit-distributing, i.e., not returning any profits generated to their owners or directors. They are self-governing, i.e., equipped to control their own activities. They are voluntary, at least in part, i.e., they involve some meaningful degree of voluntary participation, either in the actual conduct of the agency’s activities or in the management of its affairs. So defined, the voluntary sector inevitably covers a wide range of agents—including charities, faith-based organizations, and not-for-profits—and activities, including direct services and sustenance to vulnerable clients as well as advocating on their behalf, but also more general fundraising, research, and so forth. The voluntary sector is part of civil society—the field of uncoerced social activity and networks that are independent of the state and lie beyond the market, with its emphasis on the nonprofit principle, mutualism, and altruism—but is different from more community-based components by its (usually legal and tax) formality, known for instance as “registered charity” status (United Kingdom) and 401c (United States). Since the dawn of neoliberal governance in the 1980s, the scale and scope of the voluntary sector has increased dramatically. Neoliberalism essentially involves making the market the central plank of society, with a concomitant decline in the state’s involvement in regulating and managing the economy and social relations. Of crucial importance has been the increasing reliance on the voluntary sector to fill the gaps of a receding (welfare) state, which has raised many implications to be covered in the first and second subsections—the general overviews and the voluntary sector/state. Geographers have made important contributions to the literature on the voluntary sector, and not just on its incumbent geographies but also comparative studies of the voluntary sector across different national and urban contexts, as well as voluntarism and care in the management of marginalized populations. In this review, the focus will be on the role of geographers (and others) in understanding the voluntary sector, its relationship to the state, comparative differences across urban and national scales, the spaces of voluntarism and care, the management of vulnerable populations, and the geographies of the voluntary sector at the urban and neighborhood scale, including the issue of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard, or community opposition/locational conflict). An important thread throughout is the ambivalent nature of the voluntary sector, neither completely subsumed into the state’s priorities nor completely free from them. This opens up the perspective that the voluntary sector can be both subservient to the state and radically independent of it. This is considered in the section Voluntary Sector and the State, but fully engaged with in the Voluntary Sector and the Management of Vulnerable Populations.

General Overviews

General overviews of the voluntary sector are numerous in the social sciences, but remain relatively rare in geography (Mohan 2000, Fyfe and Milligan 2003, Milligan and Conradson 2006, Milligan 2009). While the general overviews tend to focus on defining the voluntary sector as a separate sphere from community, the state, and the market (e.g., Brandsen, et al. 2005; Corry 2010), the geographical work builds upon this by emphasizing the spatiality of the voluntary sector, in terms of its location and its internal spaces. In effect, the voluntary sector is invariably place-based and spatially uneven just as voluntarism and gift-giving is, a point expanded upon further in Uneven Urban Geographies of the Voluntary Sector and NIMBY. This raises important issues around access, social justice, and resource distribution, the “who gets what, where and how” questions that are the essence of welfare and social geography. But just saying that the voluntary sector is spatially uneven is not enough—there are also important comparative aspects to the voluntary sector, which will be explored in Comparative Voluntary Sector Studies, and also as an internal space of voluntarism, care, and sometimes fear, again to be explored subsequent to this section on general overviews (Milligan 2009).

  • Brandsen, T., W. van de Donk, and K. Putters. “Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity as a Permanent and Inevitable Characteristic of the Third Sector.” International Journal of Public Administration 28.9 (2005): 749–765.

    DOI: 10.1081/PAD-200067320

    The authors attempt to bring definitional clarity to the voluntary sector by placing it in tension with, but not fully encapsulated by, the state, the informal community, and the market. It is this hybridity that sets the voluntary sector apart from these other social orders, a caring institution that straddles the private and public spheres. As such, the voluntary sector is inherently fuzzy yet always in the service of the betterment of society.

  • Corry, O. “Defining and Theorizing the Third Sector.” In Third Sector Research. Edited by Ron Taylor, 11–20. London: Springer, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-5707-8_2

    The author attempts to provide a series of definitions for the voluntary sector, which implies that however diverse the organizations are, they still share a coherent set of aims and logics between the state and the market. Beyond definitions, the author also attempts to see the sector as a process of governance, contestation, and co-optation.

  • Fyfe, N., and C. Milligan. “Out of the Shadows: Exploring Contemporary Geographies of Voluntarism.” Progress in Human Geography 27.4 (2003): 397–413.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132503ph435oa

    This synthesis article attempts to locate the voluntary sector and the panacea of voluntarism within a waning welfare state and growing needs of the population, the corrosion of citizenship, and lack of social capital. As social geographers, the authors also underline contemporary developments in the policy and theory world, especially the spatially uneven nature of the sector and of voluntarism more generally. The article finishes by setting a future research agenda.

  • Milligan, C., and D. Conradson. “Contemporary Landscapes of Welfare: The ‘Voluntary Turn’?” In Landscapes of Voluntarism: New Spaces of Health, Welfare and Governance. Edited by Christine Milligan and David Conradson, 1–14. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861346322.003.0001

    This chapter introduces the main outlines of the book Landscapes of Voluntarism, which provides a critical review of how to define the voluntary sector as an entity unto itself, but also in relation with the state, the market, and informal community support, effectively as part of pluralized welfare delivery. What marks the chapter is the strident focus on the geographical implications of the voluntary sector as an increasingly crucial vehicle for social cohesion, governance, and community action.

  • Mohan, J. “Geographies of Welfare and Social Exclusion.” Progress in Human Geography 24 (2000): 291–300.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913200677276476

    This is a review article of how the voluntary sector fits in with the larger welfare system, the demands created by social exclusion, and the attendant geographies of this relationship. Particular attention is paid to the sector’s management of polarization, segregation, and spatial exclusion, serving as a way to raise awareness of the geographies of poverty.

  • Milligan, C. “Voluntary Sector.” In The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Edited by Robert Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, 165–170. London: Elsevier, 2009.

    In this review piece, Milligan traces key geographical aspects to the voluntary sector—its spatial distribution at the global level, followed by the comparative context, the place-based nature of voluntarism, and the emergence of the shadow state. The overview finishes with an extended treatment of volunteering, place, and gender.

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