NCVO Almanac 2021: The latest findings on the voluntary sector and volunteering

NCVO research and insight manager, Anya Martin, looks at the key findings of the Almanac 2021 and what they show about the UK’s voluntary sector.

The 2021 edition of NCVO’s UK Civil Society Almanac, published today, provides the latest overview of the voluntary sector, its finances, and the people who make it what it is. Although most of the financial data is based on 2018/19, this year we’ve worked to supplement it with more recent data to help readers understand the challenges that are currently facing the sector.

The Almanac is a phenomenal data resource. We collect a large sample of about 10,000 annual reports and use machine learning to classify and sort these. We then aggregate and weight these to get a picture of the whole sector. It’s the definitive resource for understanding the voluntary sector. It’s even used by the Office for National Statistics in calculating the sector’s size for the national accounts. Here’s a look at what the latest data shows.

There’s been a slight decrease in the number of voluntary sector organisations  

As of 2018/19, there were just over 163,000 voluntary organisations in the UK, down from almost 167,000 the year before. The vast majority – over 129,000 – of these organisations are based in England, with almost 21,000 in Scotland, almost 7,000 in Wales, and slightly over 6,000 in Northern Ireland.

After a steady increase in organisation numbers in the 2000s, there was a notable drop during the financial crisis. Since then, there was a period of relative stability before this year’s fall. It’s likely that there will be a further fall in the following years, especially due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic

Most voluntary organisations (80%) are relatively small – with an income of less than £100,000 a year. These organisations are likely to have no more than a handful of staff. But while our sector is dominated by these types of small organisations, they make up a relatively tiny proportion of the sector’s overall income and spending (4 and 5% respectively). These smaller organisations generally operate at a very local level, and are spread quite evenly around the country.

At the other end of the scale, there are 59 ‘super-major’ organisations with an annual income of over £100m a year, and another 736 ‘’major’ organisations making over £1m a year. These organisations are responsible for over 80% of the sector’s income and spending. They operate at a national or international level and are more likely to have their headquarters in London.

The number of employees in the sector has continued to grow despite the crisis 

Over 950,000 people work in the voluntary sector as of September 2020 – a 3% increase on the year before (over 32,000 additional jobs), despite the pandemic and lockdowns. This follows over a decade of fairly consistent job growth. In fact, the sector is now 20% larger than it was a decade earlier. So, while it remains a much smaller sector than the public or private sectors at just 3% of the UK’s workforce, the voluntary sector has seen by far the fastest growth.

This contrasts with the private sector which had a 2% fall in employee numbers (almost 500,000 jobs) over the same period. While the voluntary sector’s small size means it cannot fully compensate for the loss of employment in the private sector, it’s likely that it provided a safety net for some of those losing their jobs during last year’s lockdown. In particular, there was a substantial increase in older employees (aged 50+) in the voluntary sector – a 6% increase in jobs.

While this growth in jobs was unexpected given the economic challenges faced by the whole country, perhaps it suggests that the sector’s varied funding streams and the support packages for employers, such as furlough, helped to keep employment in the sector afloat.

Over half of the population volunteered their time to help others during the pandemic 

In 2020/21, 16.3m people in the UK volunteered formally’ – that is, through a voluntary organisation of some kind. This was a substantial decrease from the year before when 20.1m people were able to do so. This pattern is likely to be almost entirely due to the closure of many indoor activities during the lockdowns as well as a disproportionately older volunteer base having to shield. 

However, there is a glimmer of hope: Although many people were unable to volunteer formally, we also saw a drastic increase in the number of people volunteering their time informally to help others – providing services to people who are not relatives or friends. In fact, over half of UK adults volunteered their time to help others at least once in the last year. The sudden growth of mutual aid groups in the first lockdown is a testament to this.  

Voluntary organisations will have suffered financially since the pandemic began

Pre-pandemic, the sector’s annual income had continued to grow at a fairly steady rate of 1-2% a year. In 2018/19 it reached a new record of £56bn, an increase of £800m on the year before.

The public is, and has always been, the largest source of income for the voluntary sector, contributing £27.1bn or 48% of all income. Income from the public comes in various forms, including donations and legacies, membership fees or charges for services, and income from trading activities like charity shops. Income from the public grew by £1bn over the year, almost entirely driven by an increase in donations. There was also a massive increase – over 12% – in investment income, worth about £500m.

These increases were partially offset by falls in income from government which fell by £300m, having been relatively stable for a few years prior. Income from government includes both fees for commissioned services and grants. With income from other sources growing, income from government has fallen as a proportion of the sector’s total income, from a peak of 37% in 2009/10 to a low of 28% today.

The voluntary sector spends £46bn a year on delivering its charitable objectives – or about 85% of its spending. The rest is divided between fundraising costs (14%) and governance costs (1%).

How to make the best use of the Almanac

The Almanac is not just for number crunchers! It has a wide range of uses from understanding possible income streams, benchmarking, and strategising about your operating environment. We have included a page on how you can use it, and data tables are available to download to help you explore the information in more detail.

Find out more in the Almanac.

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Anya is the research and insight manager responsible for the quantitative research pipeline, including the UK Civil Society Almanac and our various voluntary sector surveys. Anya joined NCVO in April 2021 after working in research and policy roles across several voluntary and housing sector organisations.

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