What do voluntary organisations do?


  • In the Almanac, we use the International Classification of Non-profit Organisations (ICNPO) to describe the activities of voluntary organisations.
  • Organisations are classified into 18 subsectors. Some of these categories are very broad. Social services for instance includes youth services, family services including domestic violence shelters, services for disabled and elderly people and support groups. Other categories are focused on one particular type of organisation, for example parent-teacher associations (see table below).
  • This classification system is not perfect. In reality, many organisations undertake multiple activities (for example, housing and advice) while the ICNPO classification groups organisations into a single category based on their primary activity. However, this still allows us to look at and compare discrete groups of voluntary organisations.
  • NCVO has been involved in work with Dr Christopher Damm of the University of Sheffield and David Kane on a new UK Charity Classification System, designed to better reflect the diversity of charities. We hope to feed this work into future Almanacs.
  • For more information see our page on the ICNPO classification.

Voluntary organisations carry out a range of different types of work

By subsector

  • Social services remains the largest subsector in terms of both number of organisations and total income. There were 31,178 social services organisations in 2018/19, 19% of all organisations in the voluntary sector. They generated an income of £12.5bn.
  • The next largest subsectors in terms of number of organisations were culture and recreation (23,836 organisations or 15% of the sector) and religion (15,055 organisations or 9% of the sector).
  • Between 2017/18 and 2018/19, there was a fall in the number of all types of organisations. Playgroups and nurseries saw the largest decline (-5%), followed by employment and training organisations (-4%) and law and advocacy organisations (-4%).
  • For more information on the number of organisations, income and expenditure of each subsector, see our page on ICNPOs.

Social services - a relatively broad category - is the largest subsector, representing just under a fifth of all voluntary organisations

Top 10 voluntary organisations

  • Organisations focused on health research, social services, children and international development make up most of the top 10 largest voluntary organisations by income. The National Trust is an exception, focusing on heritage conservation.
  • Save the Children International has remained the UK’s largest charity (by income) for several years, with an income of £975m.
  • The new entrants to the top 10 list in 2018/19 are Motability, which received a large one-off donation from its corporate arm, and Barnardo’s.

Voluntary organisations that focus on health, research, social services, children and international development make up most of the top 10 voluntary organisations by income

By size

  • The vast majority of voluntary organisations are micro and small, with an annual income of less than £100,000 (80%). Just 4% of organisations have an annual income of £1m or more.
  • Some types of organisation are almost all micro or small, such as almost all parent-teacher associations (99%), village halls (98%) and scout groups (93%). These are typically very local organisations.
  • Health (10%), umbrella bodies and research (both 9%) have the largest proportion of large, major and super-major organisations. These are more likely to be organisations operating at a national level.

Almost all parent-teacher associations, village halls and scout groups are micro or small organisations with an annual income of less than £100,000

More data and research

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 September 2021