Social and caring services are provided in developed economies by statutory bodies, the market, the household and the voluntary sector in combinations that vary across time and place. This themed section is about the enrolment of the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) to achieve government agenda, including improved public services, community empowerment and building social capital. Mainstreaming of the VCS has profound implications for individuals (service users, volunteers and paid workers), and for organisations and communities. These articles are based on contributions to an ESRC seminar series ‘Re-mixing the economy of welfare: what is emerging beyond the market and the state?’ Individual seminars explored aspects of this reform, including variations across the nations of the UK, implications for volunteers and the concept of social value. Articles in this section address some of the diversity of VCS roles in communities and relationships with welfare policies, as well as direct public service delivery. Authors focus specifically on England, Scotland and France, while recognising international debates and developments.