Blurring boundaries between sectors

The boundaries between the voluntary and community sector (VCS), public sector and the market have become increasingly blurred. As government plans for a “deep and serious” reform of public services evolve, many voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) are delivering public services traditionally undertaken by the state (see public service delivery). This has all led to the evolution of hybrid organisations at the boundaries between the sectors. These organisations (such as trust schools and academies) have developed as a way of giving greater flexibility and decision-making power to both those delivering and those using services. Much of the recent VCS expansion has been in this area. With an increasing focus on localism within the Big Society Agenda coupled with spending cuts (see constrained public spending) and reform of public service delivery this trend of blurring boundaries and hybrid organisations is likely to continue.

New forms of VCOs based around social enterprise activity have also developed as a response to the emphasis on earned income and sustainability within the sector as well as rising interest in socially responsible business. There is also a blurring of boundaries surrounding campaigning; for example, an increase in campaigning-style marketing drives to create attractive brands and collaborations between private companies and VCOs to raise awareness on ethical issues (see corporate responsibility). These trends are increasing competition and blurring public understanding of who is leading campaigns.

What are the implications?

  • Increasing competition between different sectors.
  • As boundaries blur, skills sets between the sectors become more similar and an increasing number of people may switch sectors. 
  • Confusion in public understanding of what constitutes the VCS and the relationship the sector has with the state.
  • The distinction between organisations from various sectors may be increasingly hard to determine.
  • VCOs may find it hard to understand where to seek support (VCS umbrellas, private support organisations, the state etc)
  • Potential implications for trust if organisations are seen to be too close to the state or private sector organisations.
  • Hybrid organisations often consider themselves to be within the public sector and may not identify themselves with the VCS.  This could mean they don't access relevant available support.
  • Possible rise of tensions from within different branches of hybrid organisations, for example public sector funders, private sponsors, the state, and frontline delivery staff.
  • Complexity for campaigners trying to influence hybrid organisations.

Moving forward

How can you ensure that your organisation retains its identify as a VCO?  How can you ensure that people still recognise the support your organisation offers?

The presence of hybrid organisations in your community may lead to confusion amongst people as to whom and what your organisation is. 

  • Is your organisation prepared for the increased competition that blurring of the boundaries can bring?
  • Are there ways to ensure people both within and outside your organisation are clear about your mission, aims and values?  What are these?

Blurring of the boundaries can bring out increased competition between different individuals and sectors focusing on similar issues, particularly in campaigning.

  • Is your organisation prepared for the increased competition that blurring of the boundaries can bring?
  • How will the increase in competition and coalitions impact on your organisation?
  • Do you need to differentiate your organisation better in order to ensure the change you are campaigning for?
  • If your organisation is campaigning in the local area, how do you identify who to influence and routes into particular organisations?

Some institutions, particularly hybrid organisations may be harder to influence than others.

  • How could you work in collaboration with others to raise the profile of your campaign or increase its effectiveness?

As the boundaries blur, organisations may become confused as to where to seek help. 

  • Do you know which organisations offer support for you?
  • If your organisation offers support to hybrid organisations, how can you ensure that they know about what you offer and understand its relevance to them?

How do you ensure that those with different interests within your organisation work with shared ethics and towards a shared aim? What can you do to mitigate any tensions that rise?

With the growth of hybrid organisations, trust in these charities may be threatened because of low public understanding of the diverse range of organisations in the sector.  

  • How can you ensure that your organisation maintains the trust of its staff, beneficiaries and the general public?
  • Are there ways you can work with hybrid organisations to maintain or improve their reputation amongst the public?

As people switch sectors, how can your organisation take advantage of the skills people bring from the private and public sector? What can the VCS and your organisation offer staff that the private and public sector does not?

Want to know more?

Stand and deliver

Published by: The Charity Commission

Date: 2007

Format: PDF

What is it? This report discusses the extent to which charities deliver public services and the implications of this in terms of governance, sustainability and the nature of the sector.

How useful is this? This report is very useful in setting the context, with relevant data and an informed discussion. It is also relatively concise. The report is based on an online survey with a sample size of 3803. Details of the methodology are given in the report.

Private Delivery of Public Services

Published by: The Centre for Market and Public Organisation

Date: 2008

Format: PDF

What is it? This is an academic report analysing private-public partnerships, and public service delivery by private sector and voluntary sector organisations.

How useful is this? This is a useful report, giving a careful analysis of the issue. It also provides an extensive reference list of relevant papers.

Future Focus 7: What will campaigning be like in 5 years’ time?

Published by: NCVO Foresight

Date: 2009

Format: PDF

What is it? An NCVO Foresight publication examining the main trends likely to affect campaigning in the future and how these may impact upon organisations.

How useful is this? Driver 5 (Page 26-29) looks at the issues surrounding the “Increase in competition and coalitions”. These include private companies setting up campaigning-style marketing drives and the growth in collaborations between private companies and VCOs in raising awareness and marketing products.  All of these contribute to the increased blurring of the boundaries between sectors.  The driver finishes with questions for organisations to think about and consider surround the subject. 

Other comments:The full set of Future Focus publications, including links to purchase physical copies, can be found here.

Blurring Boundaries

Published by: NCVO

Date: 2009

Format: PDF

What is it? This report aims to identify ways in which the blurring of boundaries affects civil society organisations. It is based on an NCVO seminar and draws on ideas from a range of civil society organisations and academic researchers.

How useful is this? This report gives a useful basis for ongoing discussions on this issue. It also identifies key points for policy and practice.

Last updated at 15:33 Thu 03/Feb/11.


How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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