About the Sector

Posted on 10 Jul 2018 Last updated on 3 Mar 2021

Charities, community and voluntary organisations, and social enterprises are integral to our social infrastructure and they are significant players in Ireland’s economy. 

Charities, community and voluntary organisations, and social enterprises provide essential services and support advocacy in every community in Ireland. This includes supports and advocacy in the areas of health and disability, social care, education, housing, poverty relief, the arts, and sport, as well as international development. The sector is the unseen force powering our communities, driving positive social change, and giving people a voice, while providing vitally important supports and services. 

Additionally, the community and voluntary sector constitutes a significant social economy within the broader economy. It comprises 32,841 community, voluntary and charitable organisations, involves over 86,481 volunteer directors and trustees, directly employs 165,000 people, and manages income of €14.2bn per year.   

These organisations raise over half of this income (more than €8.3bn) themselves, majorly subsidising the cost of public services in Ireland. Indecon Economic Consultants (in a report published by the Charities Regulator in 2018) estimate that the total direct, indirect, and induced value of the work of Ireland’s charities exceed €24bn per annum and support 289,000 employees. 

The sector mobilises hundreds of thousands of volunteers and delivers the majority of our social and community services at a saving to the state. This social economy drives employment while simultaneously meeting the demand for essential services, works to progress social inclusion, equality, and the health and wellbeing of our communities and makes a difference to millions of lives here and across the world. 

Despite a huge variance in the size, structure and composition of organisations within the sector, they share a few things in common. They are all: 

  • Governed by Boards made up of unpaid volunteers   

  • Operated for the common good / public benefit on a not-for-private-profit basis, putting the needs of people and communities first.   

This activity creates significant social value (sometimes called ‘social capital’) and, quite simply, it sustains communities, builds a sense of common purpose and creates trust and willingness to work together in our society.  There are unique characteristics that are observable in the way that charities, community and voluntary groups, and social enterprises carry out their work: 

  • Enables people to participate as active citizens in our democratic life  

  • Provides every-day, essential health, social and community services with and for the people and communities who need them 

  • Responsive, tailored and holistic approaches to identifying and meeting needs 

  • Flexibility, innovation, integration and collaboration in delivering services 

  • Ownership, involvement and empowerment of service-beneficiaries and the wider community in shaping services and supports 

  • Contributions to building social capital and social cohesion 

  • Committed, motivated and person-centred staff 

  • Bringing additional assets and sources of funding to support the work that would not otherwise be available to the state. 

Read more about the sector at Benefacts.ie.

A few words on language:

Organisations in Ireland’s community,  voluntary and charity sector use a wide variety of terms to describe themselves: 'charity' is often used of course, but equally used are ‘community group’, ‘voluntary organisation’, ‘nonprofit’, ‘NGO’, and ‘social enterprise’.  It is important to note that the term "charity" has a legal definition
and refers only to organisations registered with the Charities Regulator. In Ireland, the term 'NGO' is commonly used for organisations that do most of their work abroad.

The words ‘club’ or ‘association’ are regularly used for small or locally based initiatives. Sometimes too we hear of ‘for impact’ organisations or ‘social-entrepreneur-founded’ organisations. We encompass all of these in the term ‘community, voluntary sector and charity’ sector.