How do we define the voluntary sector?

Our working definition

In the Almanac, the voluntary sector includes organisations that have six common features.

While we recognise that there is no perfect term or definition, the Almanac focuses on organisations that meet the following criteria:

However, there is no single administrative database for all voluntary organisations. The most comprehensive available is the Charity Commission register of charities, on which the figures produced for the Almanac are largely based.

When the Almanac refers to the voluntary sector or voluntary organisations, this refers to what we call 'general charities': registered charities minus those charities that do not meet the list of criteria above — for instance, non-departmental public bodies or universities.

What is civil society?

  • ‘Civil society’ is another contested term. Based on the definition used in ‘Beyond Charities’, civil society refers to a broader range of organisations that play a significant role in society by providing services that benefit the public, advocating and campaigning for social change, acting as a watchdog, promoting civic engagement and participating in global governance processes.
  • Recent years have seen the rise ‘hybrid’ organisations that share the characteristics of more than one sector. For example, social enterprises - businesses with social objectives that reinvest the money they make back into their business or the local community - can have multiple registrations including community interest companies, limited liability companies, or charities. A charity may also have a trading arm registered as a social enterprise.
  • There are an estimated 400,000 civil society organisations. However, this number excludes estimates for informal organisations and groups, ranging between 300,000 and 900,000.1
  • The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of up to date, accurate data on the sector as well as highlighted gaps. Our research briefing Beyond Charities shines a light on the state of civil society, especially for subsectors or organisations that are often under-reported and overlooked.

More data and research

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 31 October 2022