Executive summary

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

In 2019/20 there were 165,758 voluntary organisations. This is a very small increase from the year before. The vast majority of voluntary organisations are micro and small. The impact of the pandemic on the number and size of organisations are yet to be seen as new Almanac editions start to cover the covid-19 pandemic period.

One 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 research and international development make up most of the top 10 voluntary organisations by income. Almost all parent-teacher associations, village halls and Scout groups and youth clubs 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 and the south

The majority of voluntary organisations with the biggest assets are based in London and the south. Larger organisations are more likely to be active nationally and internationally, while smaller voluntary organisations are more likely to operate locally. Across the four nations, Scotland has the highest rate of voluntary organisations per population (3.8 per 1,000 people), followed by Northern Ireland (3.4), England (2.3), and Wales (2.2).

Contrary to an earlier estimate, the covid-19 pandemic did not cause a large number of charity closures, according to research by Third Sector Research Council. However, the rate of new charity registrations has fallen significantly in 2021.

Over half of the population volunteered their time informally at least once during the pandemic, while formal volunteering rates have remained steady

16.3 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation in 2020/21. This is a significant fall from 20 million in 2019/20. Levels of formal volunteering have remained largely unchanged from 2015/16 to 2019/20. 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. The pandemic saw formal volunteering at least once a year plunge from 37% to 30% in 2020/21. Those who formally volunteered at least once a month fell from 23% to 17%.

Informal volunteering saw a small increase (2%) during the same period. In 2020/21, more than half of people volunteered informally at least once a year and a third (33%) did so at least once a month. This rose substantially during the covid-19 pandemic.

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 both at least once a month and once a year. Volunteering participation varies by ethnicity, but our Time Well Spent tells a different story. Disabled people are slightly more likely to volunteer regularly but slightly less likely to volunteer occasionally. People from the most deprived socioeconomic areas are half as likely to volunteer as those with the least socioeconomically deprived places.

The voluntary sector’s workforce grew 3% over the last year, the fastest growth of any sector over the last decade

The voluntary sector has a paid workforce of about 952,000, up 3% from 2020. The voluntary sector workforce has grown by 27% since 2011. While substantially smaller than both the public and private sectors, it has seen the fastest workforce growth 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. Almost a third work at least partially remotely - 22% work from their own home and 8% work from different places with home as a base. Over a third of the voluntary sector workforce are employed in social work.

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 at 67%.

After a dip in 2018, the number of men working in the voluntary sector has remained stable at 33%. The voluntary sector 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 over the last two years.

The voluntary sector is less ethnically diverse than the private and public sectors, with 90% of its staff identifying as White, compared to 86% for the public and the private. The proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees in the voluntary sector is also comparatively low, with numbers not changing for almost a decade.

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

The sector spends the vast majority of its £58.7bn annual income on charitable activities. Income and spending have increased consistently since 2000/01, but the rate of growth has slowed. Voluntary sector spending has grown at a faster rate than income in recent years, reaching £56.9bn.

The number of bigger 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 9% to £30.bn, while investment income rose by 7.5% to £5.2bn from the previous year. This is the first time in over 20 years that public income has made up the majority of voluntary sector income. Most other sources of income declined, including government income, which fell to £15.4bn or 26% of all income.

This appears to be caused by a gradual decline in local government income (falling from £9.4bn in 2007/08 to £6.9bn (a fall of 26%) in 2019/20) as well as unsteady levels of grant income and a fall in government contracts.

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 two thirds of their income. More than half of all voluntary organisations receive the majority of their income from the public.

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

Government funding is the second largest income source for the voluntary sector, behind the public. There was a slight fall of £684 million (4%) in the amount of government - both local and central - funding for the sector in the year to 2019/20, after a few years of relative stability. However, it has fallen as a proportion of total income as organisations have increased their funding from alternate sources.

Larger organisations receive much more income from government than smaller ones. The social services sector in particular receives a large proportion of funding from government, both in absolute terms (£5bn) and as a proportion of income (38%).

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

The voluntary sector contributed about £20bn to the UK’s economy, or 1% of GDP. The social services subsector contributes the most, worth £3.7bn, followed by the international subsector with £3.1bn and health with £2.5bn. The contribution of the sector as a proportion of GDP has increased since 2015/16 and remained at about 1% of GDP since 2016/17.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 12 June 2023