Executive summary

There has been a slight decrease in the number of voluntary organisations in the UK

In 2018/19 there were 163,150 voluntary organisations in the UK. This is a slight decrease on the previous year. The vast majority of voluntary organisations are micro and small, yet organisations with an income over £1m make up more than four-fifths of the sector’s income. There were 59 super-major organisations in 2018/19, up from 56 the previous year.

Just under a fifth of voluntary sector organisations work in social services

Voluntary organisations carry out a range of different types of work. Social services - a relatively broad category - is the largest voluntary subsector, representing just under a fifth of the sector. Voluntary organisations that focus on health, research, social services, children and international development make up most of the top 10 voluntary organisations by income. Almost all parent-teacher associations, village halls and scout groups are micro or small organisations with an annual income of less than £100,000.

Voluntary organisations are spread fairly evenly across the country, but most of the biggest organisations are based in London

The distribution of voluntary organisations varies across the UK and is broadly similar to the population distribution, but the majority of voluntary organisations with the biggest assets are based in London. While larger voluntary organisations are more likely to be based in London, they are also active across the UK and overseas. Rural areas have more voluntary organisations per person, but these tend to be smaller. Voluntary organisations of this size are more likely to operate only in their local area.

Over half of the population volunteered their time informally to help others at least once during the pandemic, while formal volunteering rates fell

16.3 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation in 2020/21. Levels of formal volunteering remained largely unchanged between 2015 and 2019, but fell dramatically during the pandemic. More than a quarter of the population were regularly involved in informal ways of volunteering and about half did so at least once in 2020/21. Most people have formally volunteered at some point in their lives, dipping in and out of involvement over time.

Older people, women, and those from less deprived socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to volunteer

People aged 65–74 are the age group most likely to volunteer on a regular basis – twice as much as those aged 25–34. Women are more likely than men to volunteer. Volunteering participation varies by ethnicity, but different data sources tell different stories. Disabled people are slightly more likely to volunteer regularly than non-disabled people. People from the most deprived socioeconomic areas are half as likely to volunteer as those in the least deprived areas.

The voluntary sector’s workforce has grown by 3% over the last year, and seen the fastest growth of any sector over the last decade

The voluntary sector has a paid workforce of 951,611, up 3% on the year before. While substantially smaller than both the public and private sectors, the voluntary sector’s workforce has grown by 20% since 2010 - the fastest growth of any sector over the last decade. The majority of voluntary sector employees work in smaller organisations with fewer than 50 paid staff members.

The voluntary sector workforce is distributed around the UK in a pattern relatively close to the population distribution, although London is slightly over-represented. Over a third of the voluntary sector workforce are employed in social work. Part-time contracts are more common in the voluntary sector than in other sectors, and voluntary sector employees are also slightly more likely to be on temporary contracts.

The voluntary sector is disproportionately staffed by women, and its workforce has an older age profile than the private sector

Women make up the majority of the voluntary sector workforce. After a dip in 2018, the number of men working in the voluntary sector has remained stable. The sector’s workforce has a similar age profile to the public sector but is older than the private sector. There has been a large increase in the number of older people (50+) and disabled people working in the UK voluntary sector. However, the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees in the voluntary sector is low compared to other sectors and has not changed in the last eight years.

Voluntary sector income and expenditure have continued to grow, but at a reduced rate

The voluntary sector spends the vast majority of its £56bn annual income on charitable activities. Income and spending have increased consistently since 2000/01, but the rate of growth has slowed.

The number of larger organisations has continued to grow, and they receive an increasing amount and share of the sector’s total income. Major and super-major organisations are responsible for over half the sector’s expenditure, similar to their share of income.

Income from the public and from investments has increased, while other income sources have declined

Almost half of voluntary sector income is from the public – the largest source – followed by more than a quarter from the government. Income from the public increased by 3.5% to £27.1bn, while investment income rose by 12.3% to £4.7bn. However, all other sources of income declined, including government income. More than half of all voluntary organisations receive the majority of their income from the public.

Smaller organisations receive a larger share of income from the public than larger ones. Environmental and parent-teacher organisations in particular depend on the public for more than 70% of their income.

There was a fall in the voluntary sector’s income from government

Government funding made up one-quarter of voluntary sector income – the second largest source after the public. There was a slight fall in the amount of government funding for the sector in the year to 2018/19, after a few years of relative stability, as well as having fallen as a proportion of total income as voluntary organisations have increased their funding from alternate sources. There has been a small decline in funding from both central and local government, as well as a much more drastic fall in funding from European and international governments.

Larger organisations receive much more income from government than smaller ones. The social services sector in particular receives the largest amount of its funding from government, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of income.

The voluntary sector contributes about £20bn to the UK’s GDP

The voluntary sector contributed about £20bn to the UK’s economy, or 0.9% of GDP. The social services subsector contributes the most, worth £3.8bn, followed by the international subsector with £3.5bn and health with £2.3bn. The value of formal volunteering in was £23.9bn in 2016.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 16 July 2022