About this research

Each year, NCVO conducts analysis on civil society via the UK Civil Society Almanac. However, largely due to gaps in the data available, the Almanac focuses primarily on general charities. This briefing explores a broader range of civil society organisations for which data is more fragmented and less consistent. Alongside the Almanac, we hope that this briefing will give a fuller picture of the size and scope of civil society in the UK.

Generally speaking, civil society is difficult to assess and measure, because of its huge diversity and the lack of a shared definition. Some organisations within civil society are defined by their legal form, some by the way they work, who they serve or their funding models. As a result, data sources are often incomplete and unreliable, particularly if organisations are not required to register with a regulatory body. In addition, much of civil society is made up of informal ‘organic’ groups often operating locally, that are not formally registered as charities, companies or other legal forms and so are challenging to research in a systematic way. Estimates of the number for these groups vary widely.[1]

To give an overview of civil society, this research was conducted using a wide range of data sources and reports. For organisations that are registered with the Charity Commission but which are normally excluded from our general charities definition, we have also used data from the Charity Commission. This includes organisations like housing associations and independent schools. A full list of data sources, definitions and types of organisations can be found in the Appendix.

What is 'civil society'?

Civil society plays a significant role in society by providing services that benefit the public, advocating and campaigning for social change, acting as a watchdog, promoting civic engagement and participating in global governance processes.

It is often understood as the area outside the community, market and state, and has been defined in many ways:

  • as the associational life that brings people together and allows civic values and skills to develop,
  • as a set of values associated with the ‘good society’ which aims for social, economic and political progress,
  • as a space where debate and deliberation allow the negotiation of the common interest.

The diagram below (based on the work of Adalbert Evers and Jean-Louis Lavelle) positions groups of organisations according to their distance from the state, the market and communities:

In the Almanac, civil society organisations are categorised into the following groups:

  • Benevolent societies
  • Building societies
  • Common investment funds
  • Community interest companies
  • Companies limited by guarantee
  • Cooperatives
  • Credit unions
  • Employee owned businesses
  • Football/rugby supporter trusts
  • Friendly societies and mutual insurers
  • General charities
  • Housing associations
  • Independent schools
  • Leisure trusts
  • Political parties
  • Religious bodies
  • Sports clubs
  • Social enterprises
  • Trade associations and professional bodies
  • Trade unions
  • Universities

Within this briefing, we will give an overview of civil society as a whole and provide more in-depth information on social enterprises, credit unions, housing associations, trade unions and political parties. Our choice has mainly been informed by the availability of reliable data sources and how prominent these organisations are in current discussions and debates on civil society. While we are largely dependent on the quality of the data available, we will endeavour to capture the size, scope and financial information of other types of civil society organisations in the future.


  1. Estimates of the number for these groups vary widely. A report by New Economics Foundation was used to generate an estimate of 600,000 in the UK The Third Sector Research Centre has more recently published an estimate of between 200,000 and 300,000.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 14 September 2022