Anatomy of the voluntary sector

Andy Ricketts looks at five key pieces of research on the voluntary sector that provide a breakdown of important facts and figures for those who are already employed by charities or interested in being employed by one.

The voluntary sector has changed enormously over the past decade. Its profile has been permanently changed by an unprecedented growth in the size of the workforce (it grew by more than a quarter in only 10 years), by the Government's push to deliver more services through contracts and by an increasing desire to 'professionalise' its work.

Charity workers might once have been seen, among other things, as lady bountifuls or tree-hugging hippies, but the public perception is changing. Their role, while always valuable, is now becoming intrinsic to society.

The recent news that typical pay for the chief executives of the largest charities had broken the £100,000-a-year barrier is one example of how the face of charities and voluntary organisations is changing. And there has been a range of recent research about the sector that helps give a picture of where charities stand in the grand scheme of things.

Many of the findings are positive, but there are problems too. The sector has grown and, compared with other sectors, has done particularly well in some areas - such as attracting women into senior management positions. In the voluntary sector, 43 per cent of senior managers are female, as opposed to 22 per cent in the public and private sectors. Figures on disability are also good compared with other sectors. But the position on ethnic diversity is far less satisfactory, particularly in management positions. Skills and training have also become major issues for charities, particularly for the smaller ones.

It is an exciting time to be working in the voluntary sector. New opportunities abound and, as the sector's political stock continues to rise, the picture is likely to change fast and to offer new opportunities.


Employees in the voluntary sector are more likely to have temporary contracts than their counterparts in the private sector, according to the Workforce Hub's UK Voluntary Sector Workforce Almanac 2007.

The almanac reveals that 4 per cent of employees in the private sector were on temporary contracts in 2005, but the figure in the voluntary sector was 9 per cent. Although the number of employees in the sector has increased dramatically, the number of people on temporary contracts has also remained static at about 50,000, according to the almanac.

This means that the proportion of temporary employees in the sector has fallen by 20 per cent, and by a lower proportion than in the public and private sectors, where the reliance on temporary workers has been cut by 25 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

Working hours

A large chunk of voluntary sector employees work more hours then they are paid for.

Acevo's 2007/08 pay survey concludes that an average chief executive works 10 hours a week more than she or he is contracted to do. Two-thirds of chief executives work an average of 10 hours over the weekend, the poll also finds. Yet the median contracted hours among chief executives is only 35. The heads of voluntary organisations are not alone in putting in the extra work. Among voluntary sector employees more generally, just under half of respondents to Birdsong Consulting's Charity Pulse disagreed with the statement "I rarely work more than my contracted hours in a week".

Part-time versus full-time

Part-time work accounts for a large proportion of employment in the sector; 236,000 people, or 39 per cent, work part-time at an average of 18.5 hours per week, according to the Workforce Almanac.

Of those people, an average of 10 per cent work part-time because they are unable to find full-time employment. This figure applies to 9 per cent of women working part-time in the sector and, perhaps surprisingly, to 17 per cent of men.

Overall, the percentage of part-time workers is much higher in the voluntary sector than in the public and private sectors, where 29 per cent and 23 per cent of employees respectively work part-time.

Type of work

The make-up of work done by employees in the voluntary sector has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. The proportion of the voluntary workforce providing social work without accommodation increased by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2005, according to the Workforce Almanac. More than half of workers in the sector - a total of 331,000 people - are now employed to carry out some form of social work. There has been a huge increase in the overall number of people working in the sector, but a large proportion of this rise is because of the boom in social work jobs.

Qualifications and skills

One-third of voluntary sector employees have a degree or equivalent, the almanac shows.

Although this may show the sector in a positive light, other research highlights a lack of skills among the workforce.

The Workforce Hub's skills survey, for instance, reveals that 29 per cent of organisations employ staff that they consider to be insufficiently skilled to carry out their jobs. Areas such as the strategic use of IT, legal knowledge and fundraising are in greatest need of development. More than a quarter of organisations identify each of these areas as problematic. Smaller organisations have a greater chance of reporting skills shortages, the research says, because they are more likely to ask employees to carry out a range of jobs.

And this lack of skills has had a negative impact on recruitment in the sector. Almost a quarter of organisations say that this is the main reason for being unable to recruit the people they need. A similar proportion cite a lack of suitable experience, according to the research.

The situation does not look like it will improve soon. Forty per cent of organisations expect recruitment in at least one area to become more difficult as time goes on. Fundraising is a field where particular problems are anticipated.

Despite the level of hard-to-fill vacancies, Agenda Consulting's People Count study finds that the average time to fill an empty post in the voluntary sector is lower than the UK average. Such vacancies take 37 working days to fill, compared with a national average of 43 days.

Development and training

Charities spend less on training than other sectors. The People Count study shows that the sector performs worse than others when it comes to annual spending on training: £311 per head against the national average of £387. Workers receive an average of three days of training a year, with the all-sector average being 3.5 days.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that 46 per cent of respondents to the Charity Pulse survey either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "There are good opportunities for personal development at this charity". A further 61 per cent said they received sufficient training to enable them to do their jobs properly.

Worryingly, despite 57 per cent of employers saying that the skills gap exists because of a lack of resources for training, according to the Workforce Hub's recent skills survey, voluntary sector organisations still believe that providing more training is the key way to tackle the skills shortage.

Clearly, without a major injection of cash, this is not likely to happen.

Job satisfaction

Despite lower pay and some tough working conditions, voluntary sector workers are happy. Birdsong Consulting's Charity Pulse reveals that a massive 86 per cent of its respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "I enjoy the work I do". Similarly, 84 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with "I am proud to work for this charity".

Charity workers also feel fulfilled by the work they do; 88 per cent responded positively to the statement "I feel I am making a difference". Furthermore, 71 per cent say they have a good work-life balance. And 62 per cent say they are not worried about being blamed when things go wrong.


The sector is a real mixed bag when it comes to diversity. Although the proportion of women in senior management positions and the number of disabled people working in the sector compares favourably to others, it fares poorly in other areas, such as ethnic diversity at managerial level.

The People Count study finds that only 5.2 per cent of managers in the sector are from an ethnic minority, compared with a UK workforce average of 8 per cent. The figures for chief executives are even lower. Acevo's pay survey says that fewer than 5 per cent of voluntary sector bosses are non-white.

The proportion of people from ethnic minorities working at all levels in the voluntary sector is higher than the cross-industry average, according to People Count: 9.6 per cent against 7.7 per cent. However, this suggests that although the sector is doing well in terms of employing people from ethnic minorities, it is doing badly in providing them with opportunities to advance.

For disabled people, a similar picture emerges. Although the almanac finds that 18 per cent of employees in the sector have disabilities, according to Acevo only 4.5 per cent of chief executives describe themselves as disabled.

The voluntary sector also employs proportionally fewer people at either end of the age range than other sectors. People Count says 6 per cent of the sector's workforce is aged from 16 to 24; the UK average is 12 per cent. Although 7 per cent of all employees are aged between 60 and 65, in the voluntary sector this figure is only 4 per cent.


Who works in the voluntary sector, and where do they work?

69% are female

In the private sector, only 40 per cent of employees are women. In the public sector, 64 per cent are female.

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

54% work in social care

Between 1996 and 2005, the number of voluntary sector employees in social work, without accommodation, rocketed from 149,000 to 277,000.

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

39% work part-time

This equates to 236,000 people. The figure is a much higher proportion than in the public sector (29 per cent) and the private sector (23 per cent).

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

33% have degrees

The number of voluntary sector employees with degrees grew by 43 per cent to 188,000 between 1996 and 2005.

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

32% live in the south east

Eighty-five per cent of UK voluntary sector workers live in England, 10 per cent in Scotland, 3 per cent in Wales and 2 per cent in Northern Ireland.

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

18% have disabilities

This amounts to 111,000 people. The proportion is higher than in the private sector, where 13 per cent are disabled. In the public sector it is 14 per cent.

(Source: Workforce Almanac)

10% are from ethnic minorities

This is higher than the UK average (9 per cent). But the proportion of managers is lower than the average.

(Source: People Count 2007)

Did you know?

More than half of voluntary sector employees work for organisations that employ fewer than 25 people. Thirty-two per cent are employed by organisations with fewer than 10 people. Only 3 per cent are employed in workplaces with more than 500 staff. (Source: Workforce Almanac)

- UK Voluntary Sector Workforce Almanac 2007, Workforce Hub
- Voluntary Sector Skills Survey 2007, Workforce Hub
- Charity Pulse 2007, Birdsong Consulting
- The View from Here: Acevo pay survey 2007/8, Acevo
- People Count, Voluntary Sector 2007, Agenda Consulting


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