What Is The Third Sector?

14 May, 2024Blog Articles, Get the Edge

If you’ve done any volunteering, looked into work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or researched not-for-profits, you’ll have interacted with the third-sector without even realising it.

But what exactly does the phrase mean? What sort of organisations does it cover? And what sort of careers are available in it? We’ve put together a guide answering all of these questions and more.

What does the third sector mean?


The third sector covers charity and voluntary work, and is also known as the ‘not-for-profit’ industry. The organisations it includes are neither public (owned by the state) or private (owned by individuals), which is where the name third sector comes from. Registered charities, social enterprises, cooperatives, research institutions and NGOs all fall into this category.

In order to be classified as third-sector, an organisation must fulfil the following three conditions:

  • Non-governmental: They cannot be owned or controlled by the state. That said, they will often cooperate with the government, and might receive state funding.
  • Not-for-profit: While they must have a way of covering their own operational costs (e.g. staff wages, rent, advertising), third-sector companies should put their profits towards the improvement of society, rather than their founders’ personal gain.
  • Socially focused: Third-sector organisations should be driven by a vision of improving the social or environmental landscape. Their focus may include human rights, environmental sustainability or education services, amongst other things.


Which organisations are included in the third sector?


The third sector is extensive; in England and Wales there were over 168,237 registered charities in 2018! Most of these organisations are SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), but the UK is also home to several national and international projects. We’ve listed a selection of examples of Third-Sector Organisations (TSOs), which you can explore further by following the links to their own webpages.

Students volunteering and putting their hands together for a third-sector organisation

Human health support & Scientific research organisations


A lot of charities in the UK are health-focused, funding scientific research and providing support to patients and their families at every stage of treatment. A lot of voluntary roles and paid positions are available in this sector, and may particularly appeal to Biology, medical science and Psychology students and graduates looking for good extracurricular activities for medicine. Some examples include:

Age UK:

A leading charity supporting the elderly, Age UK strives to combat loneliness in later life by offering counselling services and regular social events, as well as Call in Time, a telephone service matching an elderly person with a volunteer for a 30 minute phone call every week. They also offer group exercise and education programmes to enhance the elderly’s quality of life. They fundraise in lots of ways, including their network of cafés, restaurants and charity shops across the UK.


Cancer Research UK:

The world’s largest cancer research and support charity, Cancer Research UK funds various research projects concerning the prevention, development and treatment of cancer, conducted in universities and research institutes across the country. They also directly support patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, offering counselling, online forums and information pages detailing symptoms, screenings and treatments. 


Alzheimer’s Society:

Similar to Cancer Research UK, Alzheimer’s Society mainly funds scientific research projects to develop screening, diagnosis and treatment techniques for Alzheimer’s disease, while also supporting those affected by it. They also fundraise and organise campaigns to raise awareness of and establish better systems for the treatment of dementia. 



A national charity for mental health, Mind is dedicated to raising awareness for mental health problems and providing guidance to those affected by them. They offer advice on how to access appropriate treatment, as well as providing support for the family and friends of people affected by mental health illnesses.


Other UK health charities and third-sector organisations:

A student holding a sign that says "Planet Over Profit"



With the environmental crisis really hitting fever pitch, issues such as pollution, climate change and resource depletion are at the forefront of the news on an almost daily basis. There are a wide variety of charities, both national and international, working to educate the public and work towards solutions. We’ve listed some of the biggest players below:

 WWF (World Wildlife Fund):

An international NGO with branches in over 100 countries, WWF’s primary focus is on preserving habitats and natural resources to protect wildlife, and enhancing the sustainability of agricultural systems. They also contribute to research aimed at reducing the environmental crisis.


ClientEarth is an international NGO, with bases in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing. Their main focus is combatting environmental issues by bringing them to court. They have won lawsuits concerning air pollution, deforestation and the oil industry.


Other example environmental charities and third-sector organisations:

A young teen student volunteering for an educational charity and third-sector organisation

Social issues and education


Still more charities and NGOs aim their work at achieving equality, be it in health provision or education. The fight against poverty and advocacy for justice and peace also fall into this group.



With a strong presence in 190 different countries, UNICEF’s work is truly global. Its goal is to empower every child, by writing into local law their right to water, food, healthcare and education. They also work with countries to enable the provision of these rights.


Save the Children UK:

Mainly focusing on the financial, physical and intellectual wellbeing of children, this charity raises funds to provide emergency support to those living in the aftermath of natural disasters and warzones.



Founded in Oxford, Oxfam now has offices in a dozen countries around the world, combatting issues associated with poverty and injustice. They fundraise in a number of ways, including their well-known charity clothing and secondhand bookshops across the UK.


Amnesty International:

A leader in standing up for human rights, Amnesty International advocates for issues of injustice around the world. They run campaigns to address pressing issues such as protection of refugees, the death penalty, exploitation and women’s rights.


Why should I work for the third sector?


It’s important to make sure that you’re entering the third sector for the right reasons. Positions in charities and NGOs will usually offer lower salaries or shorter contract periods compared to private companies, since their goal is to invest as much as possible back into their projects, rather than boosting personal profit. This means you should find an organisation whose ideals really align with your own, and whose positive impacts will invigorate you more than financial incentives can.

If you decide to work as a volunteer or do a summer internship, you have the opportunity to complete the same kinds of impactful work, while also managing your hours and pursuing a career elsewhere. This can be a good option if you are more money-orientated but still keen to make a positive change in the world. It can also be one of the many productive things to do in the summer for high school students or alongside study, as it will improve your resume and CV and give you real-world skills to discuss at interviews. 


What jobs are available in the third sector?


With around 870,000 paid employees and over 20 million UK volunteers, a lot of people are actively involved in the third sector, and in 2016/17 the sector contributed £17.1 billion to the UK economy. What’s even more impressive is that these figures are growing every year.

You always have the option to volunteer in a wide variety of roles, but third sector organisations will also have paid positions. These include a range of administrative and management roles, and will all play a part in the successful running of the organisation. You could also find an accounting, IT, marketing or customer service job in this sector.


What should I do now, if I want to work for the third sector in the future?


If you would like to pursue a career in the third sector, gaining relevant experience while you are still at school or university is a great place to start. This gives you the opportunity to gain an insight into the industry, as well as developing relevant skills. It will also give you something impressive to add to your CV, whether or not you decide to pursue a third sector career in the end.


Get involved in charity and volunteering societies in your school or university

Your university will almost definitely work with a range of charities, so attend a volunteering fair or speak to your careers department to find out more about the roles on offer. Going through your uni increases your chances of finding something to work around your timetable.


Reach out to charity and volunteering societies outside university

If none of the particular charities your university works with appeal to you, however, you can reach out to organisations on your own. This could involve working a shift in a charity shop once a week, or volunteering as a counsellor or friend for mental health charities. Age UK actively recruits students to volunteer with their befriending services, for example. Working with charities this way can also be a great networking opportunity, as well as providing a valuable insight into work in the field.

If you’re unable to dedicate the time necessary to volunteer with an ongoing project, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t help! You could organise a one-off fundraiser, donate to your chosen cause or get involved with charity-funded research projects. You could also start your own society at university to benefit the charities closest to your heart!

So, now that you know what the third sector is, why not check out the links below.


Next steps for students interested in third-sector organisations


Seriously considering a career in Politics?

Take your political understanding to the next level with one of our Oxford summer courses in International Relations, Politics and Leadership.