What's the voluntary sector's contribution to the economy?

Added Value (GVA)

  • In the same way government statistics measure the output of different sectors of industry, we can estimate the output of the voluntary sector.
  • According to the estimation method developed by NCVO and ONS, the voluntary sector contributed £17.1bn to the UK economy in 2016/17, representing 0.85% of total GDP.
  • The percentage of GDP was a little higher in 2015/16 and 2016/17 than in the preceding four years.
  • To put this amount in context, the contribution of the sector is a little less than the GDP of Honduras (£17.4bn, ranked 107 out of 121 countries), and a little more than the GDP of Cambodia (£16.7bn, ranked 108), Trinidad and Tobago (£16.7bn, ranked 109) and Cyprus (£16.6bn ranked 110).

The voluntary sector contributed £17.1bn to the economy in 2016/17, representing around 0.85% of total GDP

Added Value (GVA) of subsectors

The international and social services subsectors make the largest contributions with more than £3bn each

  • The output of subsectors of voluntary activity can be calculated using the same method as for the whole sector. The largest contributors are the international and social services subsectors, both contributing more than £3bn.
  • Substantial contributions are also made by health (£2bn) and culture and recreation (£1.8bn). Further analysis is limited by the size of the Almanac subsector samples.


The sector employs approximately 870,000 people, slightly less than in 2017

  • Just under 870,000 people worked in the voluntary sector in the UK in June 2018, equivalent to 2.7% of the UK workforce.
  • Compared to 2017, there was a small decrease in the number and proportion of people working in the voluntary sector. This was in contrast to small increases in the numbers working in the public and private sectors. In 2018, the public sector employed 7.1 million staff and the private sector employed 24.1 million staff.
  • For comparison, the voluntary sector workforce is just under three-fifths of the size of the NHS workforce, (the single largest employer in the UK with a headcount of around 1.5 million) and more than two and a half times that of Tesco’s workforce (one of the largest employers with 324,000 staff in 2018).


  • An estimated 11.9 million people formally volunteered at least once a month in 2017/18.
  • The most recent figures from ONS for 2016 estimated the value of voluntary activity in the UK to be £23.9bn.
  • Over time, this figure has been relatively stable between £22.3bn and £24.5bn.

The value of formal volunteering has been relatively stable and stood at £23.9bn in 2016

More data and research

Notes and definitions


Data on this page comes from different sources using the latest data available. For example, the information about the voluntary sector workforce covers a more recent period (2018) than the financial data used in the Almanac (2016/17).

Calculation of economic contribution

The contribution to the economy of different sectors is measured by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) based on their production or output (Gross Value Added, GVA), similar to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Note that contribution to GDP or GVA is not simply equal to turnover.

Although voluntary organisations are included in ONS estimates as part of ‘Non-Profit Institutions Serving Households’ (NPISH), NPISH is not synonymous with the voluntary sector.

NCVO and ONS therefore developed a method of estimating the voluntary sector’s GVA, in the early 2000s. Although it has its limitations, we judge it provides the best indication of the economic value of the sector. The method calculates GVA as follows:

Staff costs + Expenditure on goods and services - Income from sales of goods and services

Economic contribution of subsectors

The Almanac sample is stratified first by size and region, and then by subsector (ICNPO classification). A review of the Almanac design in 2016 concluded that only eight of the 18 ICNPO subsector categories had sufficiently large samples of organisations of different sizes to be representative of their ICNPO subsector.

Economic contribution of volunteering

The ONS estimates of voluntary activity come from the UK’s Household Satellite Account and are part of their programme of going beyond the traditional measures of economic production such as GDP.

The estimates for voluntary activities are based on estimates of total hours spent carrying out regular formal volunteering from the Community Life Survey and wage rates from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. The ONS approach is based on calculating how much it would cost to replace volunteers by paid staff.

Note that the value of unpaid volunteering for 2016 has been estimated using changes in participation rates to extrapolate the 2015 estimate due to change in comparability of the survey data (Community Life Survey) on which the estimates are based.