Voluntary sector data gap to be plugged by new national observatory


By Daniel King

Data poverty has been widely identified as a core weakness for the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector. Whilst there is good work going on, ultimately data is disjointed, fragmented and sporadic. This has key implications, where it is argued that “the low quality of data on the sector is hampering leaders when they ask for policy changes that will benefit social sector organisations” (Ainsworth, 2021). As a recent report by ProBono Economics puts it, in “contrast to the private sector” the sector struggles to produce “recognised, reliable, and timely data”, making it “difficult for government to develop long-term strategies that enable the sector to maximise its potential” (Kenley and Wilding 2021:1-2). A key consequence of this is the sector is poorly understood.

To overcome these problems, there exist a number of new geographically-limited (i.e. regional) or sector-specific (i.e. on specific topics) initiatives which relate to the gathering and analysis of voluntary, community and social enterprise activity. These illustrate the appetite for an improved evidence base to inform sector and organisational policy. The Charity Commission have launched consultations on changes to the annual return and adopted changes to how we describe what charities do, in-depth description of income sources, geographical operational areas and staffing. In the new strategy of 360Giving is highlighted that “now is the time for a permanent transformation in data culture and practice” of the VCSE sector. Moving forward, we would like to build a collaborative approach, and provide a one-stop source of interactive intelligence for policy-makers, infrastructure and frontline organisations, and researchers in the VCSE Sector at a national level.

Launching the National VCSE Data and Insights Observatory

The data gap in the sector is to be plugged by a new national observatory to better understand the VCSE sector’s strengths and weaknesses and articulate its needs. The National VCSE Data and Insights Observatory, supported by Nottingham Trent University and led by Prof Daniel King, will work with organisations across the UK to capture insights on the management, delivery, and outcomes of VCSE sector.

The Observatory will serve three central purposes. First to create an agreed set of definitions and principles for what constitutes good sector health. The second, based on these definitions, is to generate the definitive data source, with associated analytical capability, on sector health, demand, and supply, safeguarding and risk, and emerging trends that would be used by policy-makers, infrastructure organisations and practitioners to inform decision-making. Third through this data, it would provide opportunities for insights on the management, delivery, and outcomes of VCSE sector and its organisations. Thus, the Observatory would act as a hub between key stakeholders in the sector and academics across the university, to help identify, reconceptualise, and solve problems within the VCSE sector.

Let’s work collaboratively!

The sector has welcomed the news of the Observatory, expressing its support and desire to work as a collective. The Observatory already received support from VCSE key players. Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics and member of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society welcomed this initiative as “Civil society’s worth has been clear for all to see over the course of the pandemic…. Yet the official value we ascribe to the people and organisations operating in the social sector falls far short of their worth. This matters because by undervaluing the contribution of civil society, government and others risk overlooking it from a policy perspective”. From Wales, Anna Nicholl, director of Strategy & Sector Development at WCVA observed “robust data is increasingly important to guide effective policy and practice. The lack of reliable data on the sector is particularly acute in Wales as the sample sizes are too small. We welcome this opportunity to address data gaps for the sector, and particularly the promise of more comparable date across different parts of the UK”. Patricia Armstrong OBE, CEO of ACOSVO, which supports Scotland’s voluntary sector leaders, said: “I’m delighted to hear about the exciting opportunities the observatory will bring to improving access to evidence and data for our sector across the UK. We’ve all been working hard at gathering this data, but to have a coalescing drive to reduce duplication and build on collaborative working will make a difference both to the sector that uses it and to the people and communities that will benefit from the outputs”. The Observatory would act as a hub between key stakeholders in the sector and academics across universities, to help identify, reconceptualise, and solve problems within the VCSE sector.

How can we make a difference?


We know that good data matters. It shapes how we think about and see the world. It informs decision-making and the visibility of key social issues. The Observatory will host online interactive dashboards, maps and qualitative information about sector health, emerging trends, demand and capacity – presenting detailed and valuable information to both policymakers and practitioners.

What else you would like to see? Do you want to work with us to improve data insights? Please contact us and find out more!