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The Voluntary Sector and the State

Until the beginning of the seventeenth century, the church in Great Britain played the greatest role in social sector affairs. However, with the declining power of the state, secular philanthropy, and the church as well as the end of feudalism, the voluntary or non-profit sector started gaining importance. Industrialization was creating too much pressure on development and the state was either unable or reluctant to provide social security, a factor that led to the development of voluntary organizations both at local as well as national levels.

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The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the formation of philanthropic organizations that played a very crucial role in highlighting old injustices and new needs to the public. It is these agencies that have over the centuries evolved into what is today referred to as professional voluntary service and non-profit organizations. The activities of these organizations mainly cover adult education, public health, schools, environment, culture, and the arts as well as social care provision.

In the later part of the 19th century, working-class people got together into mutual aid organizations such as friendly societies, through which members pooled together their resources to establish contingency funds for sickness, old age, and burial. Housing societies, trade unions, building societies, and consumer co-operatives were also established. The voluntary sector continued to conduct formal delivery of essential social services until the beginning of the 20th century and the state only filled in the gaps by funds raised through local taxation (Straub & SpringerLink 2008, pp.87-88).

Social security and welfare provision in Britain from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries

With the industrial revolution, migration to the urban centers was high and hiked the demand for housing; but the land was very competitive due to economic growth and nonresidential purposes consumed much of the land. The result was a low-wage/high rent equilibrium in the market-leading to the development of slum housing. Although the majority of the landlords in Victorian England provided good housing, a minority of these propertied classes and their respective intermediaries profited from degrading the poor through fixed-term interests and leases that created a chain of landlords for the same property.

This created problems in the maintenance and repair of these properties as one middleman hoped the other would be willing to do it and tenants were in turn subjected to sub-standard accommodation. Although the state responded to the plight of tenants through the introduction of legislative measures that would force reluctant landlords to make improvements on their properties, the effectiveness of such regulations on slum dwellings was limited.

This is because the various agencies appointed to implement various regulatory acts had conflicting interests in the same properties they were to regulate. Local politicians, landlords, and medical officers of health all had their reservations towards the implementation of the regulations. Overcrowding, therefore, continued to be a problem especially in London where the need for housing was getting worse.

Economically, the housing problem could not be handled by individual landlords and it was gradually becoming a problem deserving collective action. As a result, institutions such as limited liability companies, subscription charities, and endowed trusts were developed to handle the housing problem. It is estimated that about 31 organizations were established in London alone between 1840 and 1914 leading to the establishment of over 35,000 dwellings; an output that was 21/2 times higher than the combined contribution of the public authorities put together.

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Among these organizations, the most popular was the Model Dwellings Companies (MDCs) through which patrons invested in properties by way of dividends. Philanthropic as well as semi-philanthropic associations which included the MDCs were able to provide housing with better air, lighting, and sanitation. MDCs provided over 70% of the 35,000 dwellings. Individual housing reformers also responded to the housing reform cause and the most famous 19th-century reformer was Octavia Hill.

She engaged in buying small groups or single existing run-down houses through loans raised by way of individual investments and later by use of lady volunteer rent collectors. Hill depended highly on surplus funds and the goodwill of acquaintances and friends. But whether it was the individual reformers or organizations, housing reformers faced the common challenge of raising the funds necessary to carry out the reforms. It was a difficult task to attract capital to this noble cause (Morris 2002, pp. 192-197; Adam p.143; Harris & Bridgen 2007, p.25).

Alongside voluntary organizations were voluntary activities carried out in form of social work. The climate of voluntary endeavor gave rise to a variety and a great number of charitable organizations. One of the earliest of such organizations was the Prussian Elberfeld system established in the town of Elberfeld. With its population of about 100,000 people, a relief system was established in 1852 whereby volunteers from 26 of its districts visited applicants for charitable relief.

They would then bring back their reports to a committee of volunteers who would decide on the most deserving cases. These volunteers were unpaid but had to serve for a three-year term. In 1869, the Charity Organization Society (COS) founded in London marked substantial progress towards this cause. The COS had a zealous leadership that saw it dominate the British voluntary sector for about half a century. Its goals were based on the management of poor relief as well as re-moralizing in partnership with the state. Material aid and advice were offered to the poor through the COS.

Charitable trusts that raised money through donations from their multiple patrons were funded by such men as Samuel Lewis, George Peabody, William Sutton, and Edward Cecil Guinness. George Peabody, a wealthy US banker is said to have donated about £300,000 at different times between 1862 and 1868 towards trusts dedicated to improving the happiness and comfort of the poor. Peabody established a trust fund that bore his name, an action that greatly raised his profile (Harris & Bridgen 2007, pp.31-35 and 71-74; Powell 2001, pp. 32-36; Rooff 2003, pp.251- 253).).

The settlement movement was another form of voluntary sector organization. Toynbee Hall university’s settlement established in Britain in1884 was the first of such movements. This settlement was established as a residence hall for recent male graduates of Cambridge and Oxford and also acted as a center for investigation and social welfare services in east London. Through Toynbee Hall, Samuel, and Henrietta Barnett, the brainchild behind the settlement became some of Victorian England’s most respected reformers. Initially, the settlement was used for the promotion of exhibitions and extension of university debating societies, clubs, and arts and crafts classes.

With time, however, the movement became involved in the establishment of urban open spaces, free libraries, as well as subsidized housing in East London. Some of these projects required massive intervention by the local and state governments through the provision of expenditure. The Barnetts believed that the promotion of art and culture would help to bridge the gap between the social classes and bring people together in a consolidated effort to improve the general standards of living (Sherman et al, 2004, pp.23-25; Powell 2001, pp.37-38).

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Voluntary organizations were also responsible for the establishment of child-saving movements such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Dr. Barnado’s Homes, and National Children’s Home, all established in Britain in the 1880s. NSPCC is famed for its fight against child cruelty, overwork, and excessive suffering. By 1914, the organization was handling about 55,000 cases and between 1884 and 1914, NSPCC had handled close to 1 million child cases. Dr. Barnado’s Homes and National Children’s Home were on the other hand involved in the plight of children by rescuing homeless children from exploitation and the risks of urban poverty (Powell 2001, pp. 40-42; Lawrence & Starkey 2001, pp.101-106).

Improved or model dwellings are said not to have benefited the poor but rather the comfortable working classes. MDCS is however said to have housed a mixture of unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled laborers. These organizations were therefore able to some extent, to fulfill their social welfare objectives; and MDCs in particular also offered the working classes a very attractive economic investment (Morris 2002, pp.196-197).

Charity trusts played a very crucial role in helping to alleviate poverty in the rural areas of England and Wales especially during the high unemployment periods between the 1840s and 1920s. Voluntary organizations also contributed to the establishment of social housing, voluntary health institutions as well as most of the country’s places in elementary schools. Charitable organizations also played a crucial role in helping to relieve distress in the cotton districts of Lancashire.

Charities are however accused of having distributed relief on cash and kind basis without discrimination of various categories of poor people. Others were too specific in their assistance, defining the poor in such terms as industrious poor, deserving poor, poor of good character, or poor laborers; a process that eventually overlooked very many needy cases (Harris & Bidgen 2007, p. 6 & 25-28; Marks 1994, pp.106-110; Curtis 2004, pp.60-67).

Effects of Government funding on voluntary sector infrastructure and management

Towards the early 20th century, poverty relief and welfare promotion remained the functions of the voluntary sector. In the 1900s, voluntary organizations except those involved in the education sector expected no state funding or supervision. But the growth of the British Labour Party and the impact of the Boer War and WWI created a new task for the state towards the provision of essential services. Employers also took an active role in welfare provision.

After WWI, economic competition from other countries was increasing and it became unwise to rely on the voluntary sector for social security and welfare provision because of its inability to raise adequate funds. Politicians and opinion formers felt that the voluntary sector needed to be reinforced. Although voluntary organizations continued to play a crucial role in the education and health sectors, its failure in the university and hospital sectors necessitates state financial aid.

The needs arising after the war led to state investment in infant welfare, medical inspection, and provision of school meals. Voluntary agencies also received funding from local authorities for the provision of support and accommodation for the disabled and elderly. With time especially in the period between wars, voluntary organizations had stopped operating independently and turned into state agencies for social security and welfare provision. Yet even after local authorities were assigned increased responsibility in the provision of services especially in housing, the voluntary sector continued to play a major role in welfare provision (Kendall 1996, pp.47-48; Prochaska 1992, pp.13-39).

During post-war reconstruction, the voluntary sector became entangled in several ideological suspicions by some labor administrators at both local and national levels. Although some organizations were able to solicit government funding, most of them remained beyond state intervention either in terms of financial support or governance. However, the voluntary sector continued with the provision of services even in areas such as health institutions where the state had taken over control.

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Towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century, voluntary organizations had increased in number largely because of the feeling that many groups had been neglected by public policy. Organizations such as the Progressive League, Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), and National Council for Civil Liberties among others were formed. Counseling organizations, medical research groups, self-help groups, cultural and leisure activities as well as social welfare organizations increased considerably between the war and 1960 (Walsh, Stephens & Moore 2000, pp.28-38; Kendall 1996, pp. 50-55).

Government funding also gave rise to a new era of negotiation between employers and workers with state representatives taking their position in the bureaucratic process. State intervention in voluntary sector activities also created more professional positions thus improving the welfare of the masses. Health workers, teachers, and other professionals could now work in public institutions caring for the poor because of the assurance of payment from the state (Perkin 2002, pp 11-19 and 150-151).

But for the voluntary sector, some problems also arose with state provision and most of them could no longer recruit high-quality staff because welfare provision had now become a major source of employment by the government. Most affected were the friendly societies whereby most of them lost control of the now state-funded social security schemes. Unions on the other hand became embroiled in party politics and lost their face as voluntary associations while at the same time they could no longer provide a strong basis for state welfare delivery through mutual aid (Kendall 1996, p.52).


The voluntary sector has for a long time provided a partnership between individuals, organizations, and the state, making this sector an integral part of various reforms in the provision of basic public services such as health, education, and welfare services. Such a partnership with civil society has in the long run provided a platform through which political and societal ills can be rectified especially through the partnership of civil society groups and state agencies.

Through voluntary organizations, individuals have always been provided with environments in which they can fully demonstrate their responsibilities and opportunities of empowerment through social participation, delivery of services, and democratic involvement at the local level. The voluntary sector has also proved to be a key site for both production and reproduction of networks and norms necessary for the improvement of social cohesion, economic efficiency as well as social capital (Milligan & Conradson 2006, pp.34-36).


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