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. For example, social services include:
    • youth services
    • family services including domestic violence shelters
    • services for disabled and elderly people and
    • support groups.
  • Other categories are focused on one type of organisation, for example, parent-teacher associations (see table below).
  • This classification system is not perfect. In reality, many organisations provide 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 on a new UK Charity Classification System, designed to better reflect the diversity of charities. We hope to feed this work into future Almanacs. This work was carried out with Dr Christopher Damm of the University of Sheffield and David Kane.
  • 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 – both for the number of organisations and total income. In 2020/21:
    • there were 31,115 organisations involved in social services or 19% of all organisations
    • they had a combined income of £12.9bn.
  • The next largest subsector is culture and recreation. In 2020/21:
    • there were 24,556 organisations or 15% of the sector
    • they had a combined income of £5.4bn.
  • This was followed by religion at 16,495 (10%), with an income of £3.3bn.
  • The three subsectors with the lowest number of organisations are:
    • umbrella bodies
    • employment and training
    • housing and research.
  • For more information on the number of organisations, income, and expenditure of each subsector, our page on the ICNPO classification.

Top 10 largest voluntary organisations

  • Organisations focused on international development, social services and research make up 7 of the top 10 largest voluntary organisations by income. In 2019/2020 international and research work subsectors made up 7 of the top 10 by income.
  • Save the Children International is the UK’s largest charity in 2020/21 (by income). Save the Children International has consistently been at or near the top for several years, with an income of £905m in 2019/20 and £871m in 2020/21. Save the Children Fund, a separate organisation, also remains in the top 10 by income this year, with an income of £289m.
  • Three charities that were in the top ten in 2019/20 are no longer in the top 10 in 2020/21: Motability has been removed from its top position in 2019/20, when it had been the first charity with over £1bn in income in any one year. The Royal Commonwealth for the Blind and the British Heart Foundation are also outside of the top 10 this year.
  • MSI Reproductive Choices (otherwise known as Marie Stopes International), which was a new entry to the top 10 list in 2019/20 with income of £308m, continues to be in the top 10 with an income of £294m in 2020/21.
  • There are three entries into the top 10 in 2020/21 that were not included in 2019/20: Ako Foundation, the British Red Cross Society and Barnardo’s.

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

By size

  • 80% of voluntary organisations are micro or small (income less than £100,000). This is the case for almost all:
    • parent-teacher associations (99%)
    • village halls (99%) and
    • scout groups and youth clubs (95%).
  • This is not surprising as these types of organisations are very locally focused. They also have the lowest average annual income out of all subsectors:
    • the average income of parent-teacher associations is the lowest at £11,175
    • followed by village halls at £20,412
    • and scout and youth clubs at £47,127.
  • All three subsectors have had consistently low incomes over the past few years and shrinking incomes since 2019/20.
  • Subsectors with the largest proportion of large, major and super-major organisations (income more than £1m) are:
    • health (11%)
    • umbrella bodies (11%)
    • employment and training (9%)
    • law and advocacy (9%)
    • housing (9%).
  • These organisations are more likely to operate nationally.
  • Out of 61 super-major organisations (income more than £100m):
    • 17 were social services (28%)
    • 11 in health (18%)
    • 10 in international charities (16%).
  • The number of super-major organisations in these subsectors is disproportionately higher than their overall proportion of the voluntary sector.

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 12 October 2023