What do voluntary organisations do?


Voluntary organisations carry out a wide range of activities across different subsectors

  • Within 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, such as the social services category which includes various types of organisations, whereas others are focused on one particular type of organisation, for example parent-teacher associations (see table below).
  • The classification is not perfect. In reality, many organisations undertake multiple activities (eg housing and advice) whereas the ICNPO classification groups organisations into a single category based on their primary activity. However, this allows us to look at and compare discrete groups of voluntary organisations.
  • For more information see our resource on ICNPO classifications.

By subsector

  • Social services continued to be the largest subsector, in terms of both number of organisations and income. It included over 32,000 voluntary organisations representing 19% of all organisations, and also had the largest income (£11.2bn) and expenditure (£10.5bn).
  • Other subsectors with large numbers of organisations were culture and recreation (just under 24,000, 14%) and religion (around 15,000, 9%).
  • For more information on the number of organisations, income and expenditure of each subsectors, see our resource on ICNPOs.

Social services remains the largest subsector, in terms of both number of organisations and income

The top ten

  • Organisations in health (including health research), children, disability or international development dominated the top ten list of the largest voluntary organisations by income. The exception was the National Trust that works in environment and conservation.
  • The ten largest organisations all work nationally or internationally, and most are household names. In 2016/17, Save the Children International was the UK’s largest voluntary organisation (as it was in the previous year) with an income of £995m.

Voluntary organisations in health, children and international development dominate the list of the top ten by income

By size

  • Almost all parent-teacher associations, village halls and scout groups and youth clubs are micro and small organisations (99%, 99% and 94% respectively), compared to 79% across all other subsectors. These organisations are also more likely to operate at a local level.
  • Umbrella bodies and organisations working in health, research, and employment and training have a higher proportion of large organisations. In 2016/17, between 8% and 10% of organisations in these subsectors had an income of £1m or more compared to 3% of those in other subsectors.

Almost all village halls, parent-teacher associations and scout groups are micro or small organisations

More data and research

Capturing what voluntary organisations do

Notes and definitions

The International Classification of Non-profit Organisations (ICNPO) was designed by the Johns Hopkins University as a way to systematically look at different activities within the voluntary sector.