How do we produce it?


We estimate the size, scope and finances of the UK voluntary sector using two sources of data: data for all registered charities based on the Charity Commission register, and detailed financial data for a sample of charities using their financial accounts. This core data has been collected by NCVO for over ten years.

  • Data for the whole population of ‘general charities’: The Charity Commission register holds data for all registered charities in England and Wales, including their head office address, area of operation, activities, charitable objects, beneficiaries, and some basic financial information (total income and spending). This data is used to provide basic information on the whole population of charities after we have applied our ‘general charities’ definition.
  • Sampling the financial data: Data is obtained for about 10,000 charities by taking their financial accounts and manually inputting them into a database. For the purpose of the Almanac, we then include only those charities that meet the ‘general charities’ definition. This data is then weighted up to the total population, to provide more detailed information on income sources and types of spending.

Aggregate data for Northern Ireland and Scotland is added in, based on financial breakdowns in England and Wales to provide an overall picture for the whole UK.

In addition to the core data on the finances of voluntary organisations, we undertake analysis of regular survey data to produce insights on the following.

Voluntary sector data

‘General charities’ definition

In the Almanac, a definition of ‘general charities’ is used to provide estimates for the voluntary sector. The definition is based on common features of non-profit organisations[1] and was originally constructed to also fit the Office for National Statistics (ONS) national accounting purposes.

Included in the ‘general charities’ definition are those registered charities that meet the following criteria:

  • Formality (institutionalised to some extent)
  • Independence (separate from the state)
  • Non-profit distributing (not returning profits generated to owners or directors)
  • Self-governance
  • Voluntarism (involving some meaningful degree of voluntary participation)
  • Public benefit

This definition excludes registered charities that do not meet these criteria, for example sacramental religious bodies or places of worship as well as organisations like independent schools, government-controlled bodies or housing associations.

NCVO recognises the limitations of the ‘general charities’ definition. It has been a challenge for some time and was identified as an issue in a recent internal review.

In years to come, the use of different terms will continue to be the object of discussion and debate, and to reflect changes in the practice and policy context.

Civil society is another contested term. In the context of the Almanac, civil society is used to talk about a far broader range of organisations than those defined as ‘general charities’, from faith groups and sports clubs to co-operatives and housing associations.

While the Almanac tries to capture civil society organisations beyond ‘general charities’, we are often limited by the availability and quality of data.

Data for the whole population of ‘general charities’

The Charity Commission maintains a register of charities, with details of all organisations based in England and Wales that are recognised as charitable in law. This data is accessible to everyone and can be downloaded every month from the government website. It forms the basis of the Almanac voluntary sector data.

The data includes the following for all registered charities:

  • Unique charity number, name, address, postcode, trustees
  • Date registered, date removed (if removed)
  • Information on mergers or links to other charities
  • Charitable objects
  • Area of operation and beneficiary group
  • Total income and spending

Financial data

Financial information on voluntary organisations is based on financial accounts data submitted to the Charity Commission. All but the smallest charities are required to return their financial accounts as a Portable Document Format (PDF) file. Additionally, the Charity Commission collects some financial data digitally:

  • Total income and spending of all registered charities
  • More detailed financial information for all registered charities with an annual income of £500,000 or more (known as ‘part b’)

This digital data forms the basis of financial data in the Almanac and provides the total figures for income and spending for all registered charities.

However, the data available digitally is somewhat limited.

  • Only larger charities have to submit financial data beyond total income and spending.
  • Part b data does not give very detailed information about different income types or sources.

Therefore, NCVO extracts additional data for a sample of charities. The Charity Commission register is used as a sampling frame for selecting a sample of about 10,000 registered charities, of which just over 7,600 are general charities.[2]

For these charities, additional financial data is obtained by manually entering data from the PDF document of their financial accounts into a database. This data entry process is carried out for NCVO by the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Sampling the financial data

The original sample design was based on a random sample of charities stratified by their size in terms of annual income. Income was used because this variable is both a key determinant of sampling error and a key variable for analysis.

As seen in the table below, different sampling fractions are applied to the different strata (income bands) with fractions increasing with the size of organisations.

Most major organisations (83%) and all super-major organisations (those with an income of £100m and more) are sampled while only about 2.5% of small charities are sampled. Data is weighted at the analysis stage to take account of the different sampling fractions.

Data classification

Within the Almanac, income of voluntary organisations is classified by type and source. This is one of the main features of the Almanac analysis and takes up most of the time during data processing.

Income type describes how the income is obtained:

  • Voluntary income (for example, donations, grants or legacies)
  • Earned income (for example, generated through contracts, membership fees, charity shops, or fundraising activities such as bake sales)
  • Investment income

The source of income describes who has provided the income:

  • The public
  • Government
  • Voluntary sector
  • Corporate/business sector
  • National Lottery
  • Investment income

The classification process is largely automated using machine learning, but also involves keyword searches and, for a small proportion, manual classification.

Data cleaning

The data is then cleaned to remove identified errors, and undergoes a series of checks to ensure validity.

These checks include the following.

  • Comparison of income, expenditure and assets data between this year and last year to look for particularly large increases and decreases (which might indicate anomalies or errors).
  • Construction of various ratios between financial variables (for example between income and expenditure, and investments and dividend income) to look for anomalies.
  • Manual checking of annual accounts submitted by super-major (and some major) charities.

Consistency of financial values

  • Where accounts are submitted in a foreign currency, all values are converted to Pounds Sterling using an average of the exchange rate over the year.
  • Organisations have a range of financial year ends, distributed throughout the year. To assist consistency, all values are converted to April 2018 prices using the retail price index (RPIX).
  • The RPIX is also used for trend data to convert actual values from previous years to the April 2018 price.

Producing UK totals

Once the data is cleaned, ratios are produced for all financial variables in the sample within each income band and are multiplied up to the England and Wales population size using weights based on income bands.

These ratios are also applied to supplementary data from Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SVCO) and Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) to produce estimates of the UK population.

Analysis by income band

Within the Almanac, voluntary organisations are divided into six groups based on their income (see table below). Each group is named to make it easier to discuss the findings (income bands name).

The sample, however, is selected in nine income bands to accommodate Charity Commission registration thresholds (income bands for sampling). These bands are aggregated to produce the six bands used in the Almanac.

Analysis by subsector

Subsectoral analysis in the Almanac is based on assigning organisations to categories in the International Classification of Nonprofit Organisations (ICNPO).

The ICNPO is a classification system for non-profit organisations designed by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the US as part of efforts to draw up a UN Satellite Account for the non-profit sector.

It is the most useful tool to classify and compare different groups of voluntary organisations, and is used throughout the Almanac.

The classification is done through a variety of different methods including keyword searches, matching to other registers and looking at individual sources.

As the original system was not a perfect fit for the UK voluntary sector, several categories were added for specific types of organisations that occur in large numbers (such as scout groups and nurseries).

For more information about the different categories, have a look at our page on subsectors in the Almanac.

In reality, many organisations undertake multiple activities (for example, housing and advice), but the ICNPO groups organisations into a single category based upon their primary activity.

The advantage of the ICNPO over a multi-dimensional classifications system (such as the classification system used by the Charity Commission), is the ability to look at and compare discrete groups of charities.

Like all classifications, this classification is not perfect. However, it does allow for the comparison of groups of charities and it does cover the activities of the whole sector.

Workforce data

Labour Force Survey

Our workforce figures are based on the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the only national data source that attempts to classify individual employment by sectors (public, private and voluntary). The LFS surveys an estimated 38,000 private households every quarter.

By pooling data for unique individuals from four quarters, it is possible to produce reliable estimates of the voluntary sector’s workforce.

Weighting is used within the LFS to compensate for non-response rates in certain groups and produce population estimates. The figures for each quarter presented in the Almanac are calculated by using a moving or rolling centred average over four quarters. This ensures some seasonality is smoothed out and that all four quarters are represented in any given year.

To identify the sector in which a respondent is employed, a two-stage self-classification process is used. Respondents are first asked whether they work for ‘a private firm, business or a limited company’ or ‘some other kind of organisation’. Those respondents who choose the second option are then asked, ‘what kind of non-private organisation is it?’.

They are then presented with a range of options including ‘charity, voluntary organisation or trust’. For the purposes of the analysis for the Almanac, responses to these questions are recoded into a sector variable and defined as ‘private’, ‘public’ or ‘voluntary’.

Volunteering data

Community Life Survey

The Almanac analysis on volunteering trends draws largely on the Community Life Survey (2012/13-present) and its predecessor, the Citizenship Survey (2001-2010/11), the best sources of trend data on rates of volunteering in England.

Since 2016/17 the survey has been commissioned annually by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports and is currently carried out by Kantar.

It is designed to be representative of adults aged 16 and over in England. The survey covers both ‘formal volunteering’, which takes place through a group, club or organisation, and ‘informal volunteering’, which takes place independently of such structures. Data is drawn from the most recent survey unless otherwise stated and includes the appropriate weighting.

There was a gap in the data in 2011/12, during the transition between the two surveys, which did not disrupt the time series. In 2016/17, however, the data collection method changed.

The survey moved from being a face-to-face interview to an online/paper version which respondents complete themselves (self-completion with no interviewer assistance).

This move meant significant savings in costs, allowing the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to increase the sample size from 3,027 in 2015/16 to at least 10,000 a year now. However, it also has a significant impact on response rates and question responses, affecting trend data due to sample, response and mode effects.

Time Well Spent

The volunteering section also draws on the Time Well Spent survey which NCVO undertook in 2018, focusing on the experiences of volunteers and the volunteer journey. The survey was completed by adults aged 18+ in Great Britain through YouGov’s panel, via an online self-completion questionnaire.

The total sample achieved was 10,103 respondents. The data was weighted to reflect the national population by key demographics: age, gender, education level and social grade.

Further reading

Almanac 2021

This year, financial years 2018 to 2019, we have used Northern Ireland data for the period 2017-18 (inflated to 2018/19 terms) as data was not available for 2018 to 2019 period. This is to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) having to rebuild its register due to a decision in the Court of Appeal about who has the power to declare an organisation a charity in that jurisdiction.

See the Charity Commission website for more details


  1. See the definitions section.

  2. The proportion of general charities in the sample (around 76%) is lower than the proportion for all registered charities (around 83%); this is because our sample is concentrated on larger organisations, including housing associations and universities for example, which are less likely to meet the general charities criteria.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 September 2021