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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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2 Size of the voluntary sector

Marker showing how deep the water is.
Figure 2 Measuring up

There are three ways in which you might assess the overall size of the voluntary sector:

  • total number of organisations in the voluntary sector
  • total annual income (what organisations earn)
  • total number of people employed or volunteering.

You could also add sector expenditure to this list but you’ll be focusing particularly on these three.

NCVO (2015a) data state that for 2012–13 there were more than 160,000 organisations in the UK voluntary sector. These have a total annual income of £40.5 billion, around 820,000 paid employees and an estimated 13.8 million regular volunteers.

In Activity 1, Karl Wilding hinted at some challenges in obtaining data about the voluntary sector and you will build on this further in Activity 3 before looking at differences within the sector.

Activity 3 Understanding the data

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Answer the following questions, which relate back to the total numbers in the NCVO data above.

  1. Total number of organisations: what might be problematic about this data?
  2. Total annual income: how and where do voluntary organisations get their income?
  3. Total number of people volunteering: what might be problematic about this data?
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  1. Total number of organisations: you saw in Week 1 the problems of defining voluntary sector organisations. This means data collectors would need to be clear what definition they are using. The NCVO uses its ‘voluntary nature’ definition, which relates to ‘general charities’. They exclude organisations controlled by government, independent schools and religious organisations. Furthermore, many voluntary organisations are very small and will not be counted in official statistics. The NCVO describes these small organisations as being ‘under the radar’. Not all voluntary organisations are registered charities so they also would not come under the NCVO definition.
  2. Total annual income: you might have guessed some of the following – donations, interest from investing money, grants from government or other organisations (such as the National Lottery). Remember also that many voluntary organisations engage in commercial activities (for example, sales from charity shops and their own products). Furthermore, as with the point above about the total number of organisations, many small organisations will not have their income counted as they are ‘under the radar’. Don’t worry if you found this question difficult – you will learn more about funding in Week 4.
  3. Total number of people volunteering: one of the main problems in assessing how many people volunteer is how to make sense of how often people volunteer. If someone volunteers once a year, should they be counted in the same way as someone who volunteers once a week or once a month? The NCVO figure includes people who volunteer at least once a month. You will learn more about the role and extent of volunteering in Week 7.

This activity should have given you a sense of the size of the sector, as well as the problems of gathering accurate data.

The problem with presenting total numbers is that without comparing them with something else it is difficult to know what is significant about them. So you might find it useful to compare these figures with those from the public or private sectors; for example, you could search online for data about the other sectors. Alternatively, you might want to break down the data further so that you get a sense of how organisations might differ within the voluntary sector.