Understanding charities and volunteering

Charities achieve their missions in different ways, from service delivery and campaigning to community development. They are a core part of our social and economic fabric. This section provides a short overview of the charity sector and volunteering.

Charities are a vital part of civil society, which has five key strengths.

  • Service delivery: Organisations across civil society deliver services, including publicly funded services, which are valued for their quality, accessibility, value for money and specialist nature.

  • Innovation: Civil society provides an inclusive space for citizens who wish to change society by meeting new needs, serving new communities, and addressing problems in new ways.

  • Advocacy: Driven by a mix of passion and lived experience,[1] the voice and advocacy role of voluntary organisations is a defining characteristic of civil society.

  • Expression and leadership development: Civil society is the place where people come together to express and share their interests, values and identities. For many people, this provides a vehicle for skills and leadership development, as well as self-fulfilment.

  • Community building: Civil society creates relationships that foster trust and reciprocity, which are essential for community building and economic growth.

Overcoming challenges and tapping potential

In 2017–18 there were 166,592 voluntary organisations in the UK. Most of these were micro or small organisations. Though approximately 3.7% of charities have an income over £1m, they make up more than 80% of the sector’s income.[2]

Charities operate on a wide spectrum: at neighbourhood, local, regional and national levels. This range provides opportunities for charities to support government efforts to level up the country.

Volunteering has a range of benefits for individuals, such as improving mental health, social networks, employment readiness and life chances. We cannot underestimate the capacity of volunteers to make a difference in our society. The support volunteers have given to the pandemic response makes this abundantly clear.

  • 12.4 million adults volunteered during the pandemic – 4.6 million of these were first-time volunteers.[3]

  • 3.8 million of this group are interested in volunteering again. While some give their time to neighbours informally, others volunteer formally for charities or public services.

  • Our research suggests 70% of people volunteer through a club, group or organisation at some point in their lives, with 38% having done so in the past year.[4]

However, several challenges hold charities and volunteers back. Lack of funding, barriers to formal volunteering and low social capital limit the potential of voluntary action in disadvantaged areas or communities.[5] This is even more the case for user-led organisations (eg organisations led by LGBTQ+ people, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds,[6][7][8] or Disabled people) and smaller, grassroots organisations.

Not everyone has equal access to volunteering, or the benefits it can offer. People from higher socio-economic groups and people who are educated to degree level are more likely to volunteer formally. The experience of volunteering is worse for young people, Disabled people and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds compared to others.[9]

These communities and groups have the potential for effective local action, but many have been deprived of the support and resources needed to sustain and grow this action.


  1. Lived experience means direct personal experience of a social issue.

  2. Royal Voluntary Service (2021) Kickstarting a New Volunteer Revolution

  3. Carter, R. ‘Accelerating closure of user-led bodies, amid care cuts, creates ‘perfect storm’ for disabled people’. www.communitycare.co.uk/2019/04/29/accelerating-closure-user-led-bodies-amid-care-cuts-creates-perfect-storm-disabled-people/ (accessed August 2021)

  4. Booksa Paper. www.ubele.org/booska-paper (accessed August 2021)

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 05 August 2021