Analysis of the voluntary sector in sub-Saharan Africa has tended to focus on the role of the NGO, and the types of relationships this institution establishes and maintains with donors, national governments and the communities with which they work. The voluntary sector in Africa is therefore usually defined through, and often treated as synonymous with, the institution of the NGO. As a result, the boundaries of understandings of the ‘third sector’ space occupied by the vast number of NGOs — its origins, the nature of the relationship of voluntary sector actors to the state, the types of organizations that characterize the sector — have tended to reflect a narrow concern with the NGO type and its experiences. This article suggests that this view is too narrow in its gaze. The voluntary sector was not a creation of a post-colonial (and especially post-1970s) development crisis. It emerged from an evolving relationship between colonial-era non-state (voluntary) actors and governments determined to demonstrate that they were meeting their commitments to the welfare of Africans under their charge. Missions and mission welfare services, expanding across much of rural sub-Saharan Africa by the beginnings of the twentieth century, and increasingly coordinated from the late 1920s and early 1930s, created the foundations for the emergence of sub-Saharan Africa's formal voluntary sector as it exists today. This matters for more than just historical accuracy. To understand the constraints, challenges and opportunities faced by NGOs, we need to move beyond a narrow focus on the institution of the NGO itself, and look in addition to the environment in which it operates: its history, its evolution and the shifts that created those conditions.