How many people work for voluntary organisations and what do they do?
- In 2023, the voluntary sector employed about 925,000 people. This is about 3% of the total workforce.
- Since the first quarter of 2020, the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the voluntary sector workforce increased by about 12,000 or 4% up till 2022. However, the voluntary sector workforce in 2023 decreased by 4% from 2022 to 2023, in a return to around 2019 levels of employment.
- In contrast, the public sector workforce has been growing each year, with a 2% increase from 2022. The private sector (which employs 73% of the total workforce) has remained largely the same size.
- The voluntary sector has grown rapidly over the last decade, up by about 24% or the equivalent of about 180,000 people since 2011. During the same period, the public sector and private sector each grew by 13%.
- The voluntary sector has always represented about 3% of the UK workforce, though this was just above 2.5% in 2011.
The voluntary sector workforce has grown by more almost a quarter since 2011, but with a slight decline from 2022 to 2023
- In December 2022, a majority of voluntary sector workers (56%) were employed by organisations with between 1 to 49 workers. Within this figure, one quarter (25%) worked for organisations with between 1 to 10 employees. Almost a third (31%) worked for organisations with between 50 to 499 employees and 8% worked for organisations with over 500 employees.
- Public sector workers were more likely to be based with larger employers, with 39% working for organisations with over 500 employees.
- Private sector workers were slightly less likely to be employed by smaller organisations (19% for between 1 to 10 employees) and slightly more for larger organisations (13% for those with 500 or more).
Almost three-fifths of voluntary sector employees worked for smaller organisations with fewer than 50 employees
- In December 2022, over four-fifths (82%) of the voluntary sector workers were based in England, about equal to its share of the UK population (84%). This was followed by Scotland, which has 12% of the workforce compared to 8% of the population, Wales with 4% compared to 5% of the population and Northern Ireland with 2% compared to 3% of the population.
- In England, 40% of the voluntary sector workforce was based in London and the south – a slightly higher proportion than 36% of the population. Within the south, London had 15% of the voluntary sector workforce compared to 13% of the population, with 16% in the south-east (14% of the population).
- The north had a lower proportion of the workforce with 19% compared to 23% of the UK population, particularly under-represented in the north-west with 8% (11% of the population).
Voluntary sector jobs are slightly overrepresented in London and the south of England, and Scotland
By place of work
- In December 2022, 61% of the voluntary sector worked from a place separate from home, which would be an office or co-working space. However, more than a third worked at least partially remotely - 28% worked from their own home and 10% worked from different places with home as a base (hybrid).
- For the public sector, only 19% worked from home and 5% were hybrid. Around a third of private sector workers (32%) engage in remote working (23% at home and 9% hybrid).
- In December 2022, over five times as many voluntary sector workers worked from home as in March 2020. Those in hybrid working rose from 7% to 10%.
- The public and private sectors saw similar patterns in increase in home and hybrid working during the covid-19 pandemic. In the public sector nine times as many workers worked from home in December 2022 than in March 2020, but the change in the private sector is of a much smaller scale (three times as many).
Around a third of the voluntary sector works from home or hybrid – higher than public and private sectors
- The largest subsector as an employer was social work, with over 345,000 or 36% of the total sector workforce. This was followed by education (just over 125,000 or 13%) and residential care (just over 100,000 or 11%)
- Since April 2020, people working in membership organisations have grown by 18%, dropping back just slightly from the level seen in December 2022.
- While staff numbers in human health had increased by 14% from April 2020 to December 2021, this level has been falling since mid-2022, returning to the level seen before the covid-19 pandemic, in December 2022.
- Following the decline in numbers of 15% from April 2020 to December 2021, staff numbers in education have increased 26% since December 2021, meaning they are now higher than pre-pandemic.
- While these trends could well be related to the pandemic context, for smaller sectors staff numbers can be volatile.
Social work is the largest employing subsector
More data and research
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Notes and definitions
To calculate the voluntary sector workforce, we use the ONS Labour Force Survey obtained from the UK Data Service for multiple years.
The voluntary sector workforce is small compared to the public and private sectors. This means that changes in the voluntary sector workforce tend to have a bigger impact.
While a thousand or so people leaving one subsector and joining another would likely not be noticed in the private sector figures, this would constitute a significant change for the voluntary sector.
The difference in numbers between the sectors is also linked to the survey itself. As mentioned in the methodology section, 38,000 people are interviewed each quarter for the survey, but only about 1,000 report that they are from the voluntary sector.
This makes the voluntary sector figures much more liable to variation if the people interviewed differ in a considerable way. These fluctuations are often hidden in the other sectors because of the higher numbers involved.
Some of the survey questions have high 'don’t know' response rates which vary substantially across sectors. Where these materially affect the interpretation of the results, they have been included.
Where they are consistently small across sectors, they have been excluded. Results can be explored in the full data.
For more information, please see the workforce data part of our methodology section.