Apples and pears: what is civil society for and who does it serve?

For the first time in 2019, the long-running Third Sector Trends Study extended its reach across the whole of England and Wales and collected responses from over 4,000 charities, social enterprises, local community groups and cooperatives. Even with a large sample of organisations such as this it is difficult to generalise about findings unless data can be ‘scaled up’ to national and regional levels by using reliable multipliers.

To do this, the Third Sector Trends Study has now used data from the Charity Commission register, the Third Sector Trends Study and NCVO Civil Society Almanac to get a much clearer picture about the situation of the local Third Sector across England and Wales.

The analysis is not perfect, methodological refinements will need to be made and more data collected in future rounds of the study to answer new questions as they arise. But it is a starting point to move analysis in new directions.

How big is the sector?

The paper shows that there are about 200,000 Third Sector organisations (TSOs) in England and Wales which seek to make a positive contribution to society. It shows that the vast majority of TSOs work locally. Over 70,000 organisations focus their activity at neighbourhood level and a further 62,000 concentrate activity within the boundaries of a single local authority. Only 18,000 TSOs work beyond regional boundaries. The Third Sector is, for the most part, a localised entity.

Big and small organisations

Most TSOs are very small, 44% have income below £10,000 a year, while 25% have income between £10,000 and £50,000. These are small informal organisations that rely primarily or wholly on voluntarily given time to do their work. Big organisations with income above £1m constitute just 3.5% of the sector, and yet they command 70% of its financial resource. Ironically, this tiny fragment of the sector gets the lion’s share of attention in media and research terms.

So it’s not all about money

The financial resources of the Third Sector are endlessly debated in the press, think tanks and the sector itself. It happens because the majority of studies collect data mainly from bigger organisations that rely more heavily on money to keep going. So, the tilt is explicable but at least partly misses the point because the energy of most organisations is produced through voluntarism (see above chart).

Organisations in rich and poor areas

There are other fault lines in the way commentators view the Third Sector. For example, there has been a lot of talk about ‘charity deserts’ over the years because organisational density is lower in poorer areas than in the most affluent areas (see chart below).

In North East and North West England, 28% of TSOs are based in the poorest areas compared with just 5% in South East England. But that’s not all, there are 6.1 TSOs per thousand population in the South East compared with just 2.2 in North East England and 2.6 in North West England.

Commentators continually emphasise the need to increase the number of TSOs in poor areas or they encourage existing organisations to grow. Is this the right advice? The Third Sector Trends Study research has consistently shown, that TSOs in poorer areas struggle to make ends meet to deliver essential services as it is. They do a good job for their communities now and the last thing they need is more competition.

In poorer areas, TSOs tend to focus on critical needs – but in rich areas they are less likely to be involved in such work. So we’re not, perhaps, comparing like with like. By looking at the density of TSOs through a different lens it becomes apparent that in wealthy areas, and most especially in the South East of England, there are huge volumes of organisations in comparative terms.

Given urgent social needs are, presumably, lower in these richer areas, it begs questions about why are there so many and what are they doing that does not happen in other less affluent areas?

What is civil society for?

We currently know little about how much of sector activity is focused on urgent needs (such as tackling the consequences of poverty, homelessness or domestic violence) and how much is centred on achieving other objectives (such as the enrichment of cultural life, the facilitation of social and leisure activities or looking after the built and national environment).

And we know remarkably little about the balance of activities in areas with different characteristics – instead, blanket assumptions are made about the general benefit that is produced: whether that is in the delivery of vital support services or building social capital.

Not all theorists regard social capital as a benign force. Instead, they argue that social capital is a resource which can be used purposefully to protect and enhance the interests of people in more affluent areas who are already socially well connected and financially secure rather than seeking to spread or share social advantages.

The state must be seen to be fair in democratic nations and offer universal services in an equitable manner. Civil society by contrast is not, cannot and should not be regarded as a homogeneous entity. The point of civil society is that it can be a diverse social sphere serving many interests, often inequitably, which in turn reflects a plurality of values. But we know so little about these differences, why they exist, whose interests they serve and what the consequences are for society as a whole.

Data are useful – but only if used to ask good questions. It’s time to think more about the values, practices and purpose of the Third Sector in the context of place in a more open-minded way.

Structure and dynamics of the Third Sector in England and Wales: technical paper on working definitions and baseline data analysis, Durham: Policy&Practice is available here.

This first working paper published in this programme of work is technical in nature and does not lend itself to easy-to-grasp headlines and soundbites. What it does do is provide a foundation upon which more accessible briefing reports can be produced which can be relied upon to provide more accurate estimates on sector activity. Comments are very welcome, contact

Future briefings will build on this work by exploring issues through new lenses to cast light on the wealth of diversity in civil society and the benefits that can bring to a wide range of constituencies of individuals and interests.


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