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David Ainsworth: Which charity has the most volunteers?

15 Feb 2017 Voices

Data from the Charity Commission register shows that volunteer numbers are both huge and poorly recorded, says David Ainsworth

Which charity is listed as having the most volunteers on the Charity Commission register. Guess. Go on. You’ll never get it.

According to the commission, it’s Methodist Women in Britain, a small charity for the Methodist faith.

The list of largest charities by volunteer numbers is one of a number of pieces of information that Civil Society News gathered from the commission website recently. (See our recent pieces on charities by investment assets, here and here, if you’re interested.) As ever, the list is quite interesting reading. In this case, it’s a mixture of big national charities, religious organisations, and small membership bodies.

So what can we learn from this list?

Well for one thing, the overall number of volunteers in the UK is astonishingly large, according to the commission – around 3.46 million. Although I suspect this is probably actually the same people being counted lots and lots of times.

I know if you counted the volunteers in the village where I grew up, you’d hit a high number, but you would actually discover that a quarter of them were my enthusiastically active retired dad, who was volunteering at the village hall, the school, the local Citizens’ Advice, and as a tree warden, whatever the hell that is.

Still, even with that taken into account, volunteering is a hugely popular thing to do.

But it’s also clear that this data isn’t the most consistent. A scan back through the accounts of large national charities shows that they give volunteer figures normally to the nearest ten thousand, and that these figures tend not to have varied much over a decade or more. Clearly these charities do not really know who is volunteering for them.

It seems implausible that the Methodists are attracting so many volunteers, while other churches are attracting so few. So is the Methodist number too high, or are the other faiths too low?

So my feeling is that the Methodists might be over-egging the pudding, but that most other bodies are just not even trying to count. In short, that number of 3.46 million, massive though it is, is probably very much on the low side.

It depends, of course, on how you measure what a volunteer is. And this, too, is an astonishingly vague concept. The government, in its definition of social action, has at times said that something as personal as giving someone else’s kids a lift to football practice counts as volunteering. There’s a lot of stuff about formal and informal volunteering, and the fact that we should replace the idea of volunteering altogether with the even more numinous concept of social action.

This leads me to a common bugbear of mine. We vastly undersell the value of charities because we account for them according to their cash economy. First, we routinely say there are less than half as many charities in the UK as there actually are (more on that here).

Second, we value charities by turnover, which leads us to see them as small compared to commercial companies with their vast incomes. Whereas in fact Cancer Research UK, with its £600m or so income, had far more money to spend as it wished, after costs, than the UK’s top ten construction companies, with their annual turnover of more than £30bn.

But most importantly, charities don’t really put a value on volunteering, because it’s hard to count.

Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England and a man who knows a thing or two, reckons that volunteering is worth more than £50bn to the UK economy. And even that may sell it short.

The essential problem is that charities are not really required to capture this data, and many do not. It is hard to put a book value on, and so it is not captured well in accounts. But perhaps it is time to try and address this more formally.

Clearly much more work is needed on this and I'd be interested in hearing anyone's thoughts. 

Top ten volunteering charities

  1. Methodist Women in Britain (140,000)
  2. Royal British Legion (119,000)
  3. Scout Association (116,438)
  4. Girlguiding (100,000)
  5. Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter day Saints (62,000)
  6. National Trust (61,000)
  7. National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies 2003 (55,122)
  8. British Trust for Ornithology (50,000)
  9. Age UK (41,000)
  10. Cancer Research UK (40,000)


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