Classifying the charity register

To anyone doing research on the voluntary sector, or building services that help voluntary organisations, the size and diversity of activities that charities undertake is always staggering. From a large international charity building relations between Britain and Japan to a small trust maintaining a village playing field, the term “voluntary sector” hides a huge amount of complexity.

We are a small team of voluntary sector data specialists, supported by the Esmée Fairburn foundation to improve the classification of charitable activities in the UK. The project is still in its early stages, but we wanted to share our plans with the wider voluntary sector research community. 

Many data research projects on UK charities use the various national registers of charities as their main source of data. The breadth of activities that these organisations undertake, however, can mean that research on the sector as a whole hides the complexity, nuance and variation between these organisations. 

Voluntary Sector researchers may have come across the International Classification of Non-Profit / Third Sector Organisations (ICNPTSO). These classifications are widely used and were originally designed to help enable international comparisons of non-profit  organisations, particularly when preparing national accounts. As with any system of classification, they have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the user and their goals. 

A first potential concern for UK users of the ICNPTSO categories is that they are not recorded as part of charities’ registration process. They have to be allocated retrospectively; no small task given that there are over 160 thousand active charities registered in England and Wales alone. The last attempt to do so was over 10 years ago, meaning the number of unclassified charities continues to grow. 

Second, the ICNPTSO classification system is also sometimes a poor fit for common areas of charitable activity in the UK. For example, there are no categories for food banks, drug addiction services, or domestic violence refuges. 

Third, charities are also generally assigned to a single category. This has advantages for comparative analysis, but can make it even harder to capture the purpose and activities of some organisations. 

To help solve these problems, the research team has been funded to undertake a number of tasks. 

First, the team has created its own UK focussed classification scheme. This scheme is built from the ground up – we have started with a list of charities and then tried to attach “tags” to them based on their activities. It is more granular than the ICNPTSO system and designed specifically for use with UK charity data. 

Second, we are in the process of creating a manually classified sub-sample of the charity registers for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In line with previous efforts, we are applying a single ICNPTSO category for each charity, whereas for our own UK focussed tagging system, charities can be ‘tagged’ with multiple categories.  We then plan to use this sub-sample to create a set of automatic rules to classify the remaining charities based on keywords in their register entry. 

The task at hand is challenging but important. No classification system will be able to capture everything that anyone might be interested in (or it wouldn’t really be a classification system at all). Nor will we get every decision correct, especially with a limited view of organisations based on their written entries in the registers of charities. But we hope that our efforts will result in both a more up-to-date application of the ICNPTSO categories, as well as an entirely new way of breaking down and exploring charitable activities in the UK. 

Crucially, we want the outputs from this project to be used as an open classification scheme that can be used and owned by the whole voluntary sector. We don’t expect to get the answers right the first time, so the scheme will improve as people use and feedback on it.

We’re excited to share developments with you as the project progresses, and if you’re interested, please do get in touch or have a look at a more detailed outline of our project. We would love to receive your feedback or discuss our plans further. 

Chris Damm (Sheffield Hallam University), Oliver Chan (National Council for Voluntary Organisations); and David Kane (independent Data Scientist). 

Reflections on the New Researchers Support Sessions

In light of the COVID pandemic, VSSN decided to expand its support to new researchers, with new regular online sessions held to provide space for people to connect and provide peer support.  The sessions were hosted by Steering Group members Vita Terry, Jane Cullingworth, and Jon Dean. Sessions were held across the Spring and Summer, with around a dozen attendees each time from across the UK and Europe, drawing in people who had not participated in VSSN before. Sessions focused on peer support in a pandemic, how to publish from your PhD (with Chris Dayson, SHU), and how to disseminate your research findings (with Emily Dyson, IVAR and Nic Dickson, Uni of Glasgow).

Here, one regular attendee Karin Biermann (doctoral student at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt) reflects on the process.


What a difference it makes: Reflections on new researcher peer support

Karin Biermann

My mind map of doubt: Am I smart enough to undertake a doctorate? And if I am, is my area of interest exciting and influential? If it is, will I find a supervisor and be accepted into a university? And if admitted, have I the stamina and resolution to finish?

And on it went.

Doctoral studies are long and mentally, emotionally, and socially challenging, and in moments of self-doubt, there is the half-hope that there is a good reason not to start at all. Self-doubt acts as a process of self-deselection before and during the doctoral course.

The extent post-graduate students are orientated into and supported throughout their studies depends upon their institution’s history and resources, including access to networks such as Vitae. Yet, even if an offering were made to all students, doctoral studies are not homogeneous. Variations exist in the stages, years, intensity and flexibility, and according to location and subject. The process is complicated, living it is stressful and lonely, and social and collegial support offer essential counterbalance (Hazell et al. 2020). The question is, where can newcomers find encouragement, especially when their institutions fail to facilitate.

Enter another mind map doubt: picturing myself amongst the ‘next generation’ researchers featured in the university websites. This is confronting as I am, by all yardsticks, of mature age, meaning from a previous generation. Search engine results for “young researcher” compared to “new researcher” illustrates the point (for the daring, search “old researcher”, or look at images of “early career” or “early stage” researchers). Thankfully, VSSN did not make this stereotyping faux pas.

I was aware of VSSN, and its publication Voluntary Sector Review, and here is where the forum steps in. To be clear, I was a student, not a researcher in any stage or phase; researcher is a new identity. Luckily for me, the forum name – new researcher – clearly identifies the target audience, making joining-in accessible and transitioning to a researcher-identity possible, albeit a work-in-progress.

The first seminar in my first doctoral semester explored how history has led science being different from other dialogues, such as lobbyism, propaganda, or the trending term, ‘fake news’. History shapes the paradigms of science and knowledge as do the rules, norms – including stereotypes – and ethics of the institutions which cultivate them. In turn, the paradigms and the institutions set the stage for how science is scientifically communicated, even to non-scientific communities.

In recent VSSN new researcher forums, a raft of communication and dissemination alternatives have been presented. Not unexpectedly, getting articles published in academic, peer-reviewed journals to showcase science to the scientific community was a key topic. However, bringing science to a broader audience was covered by book writing and publishing and, in another session, tailoring reports and presentations to practitioners and policymakers, including internet and social media. To show that science is not only stuffy theories and formats, using innovative methods for collection and dissemination was made wonderfully clear by PhD student Nic Dickson presenting her The Art of Reconnection project.

What makes the forums unique is the down-to-earth, and welcoming exchanges within the group, notwithstanding the challenges of interpersonal communication in an online world. We come together because of an interest in civil society, a sphere with mutual support as one of its pillars, not an interest in a discipline. The group meet as peers, although, I must admit, referring to distinguished and accomplished researchers as peers may take a little getting used to. Presentations are a mutually respectful interaction within a small and at-ease group, not a top-down transfer of information from an expert other.

In my first doctoral seminar, Professor Matthias Karmasin encouraged us to read “Re-thinking science” as a critique of science and its relationship to society: ‘The more open and comprehensive the scientific community the more socially robust will be the knowledge it produces’ (Nowotny et al. 2001, p.258). Although the authors are making a larger point, the quotation allows peer support, such as VSSN’s, to be appreciated as more than a mutual exchange but as a precondition for generating valuable science.

Thank you, Vita, Jane, Jon and all my ‘peers’ for your contribution.


Hazell, C.M. et al. (2020). Understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers: a mixed methods systematic review with meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Systematic Reviews [Online] 9.

Nowotny, H. et al. (2001). Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Malden, MA: Polity Press.




Guest blog: Researching what matters to charities and donors

Dr Helen Owen, Research Consultant at Giving Evidence, introduces a new search for ‘unanswered questions’

Though both charities and philanthropy are long-established, the academic study of them is nascent but growing rapidly: new centres have been established in various universities in the UK and beyond in recent years. There is therefore an opportunity to ensure that academic research into charities and philanthropy focuses on the issues which, arguably, are of greatest value to the people it intends to influence: charities, institutional funders, and private donors. But does it do so?

Charity Futures, the new sector think tank led by Sir Stephen Bubb, is launching a major consultation to find out the unanswered questions or topics on which donors, funders and charity leaders most want more research to help them in their vital work.

This is intended to improve the transparency on how research topics are decided. Whereas to date the choice of research topics conducted in the voluntary sector has been largely driven and dominated by the academic community, the consultation is designed to stimulate more/better research of the type that charities, funders and donors would like to see, and thereby to inform and improve their activities.

The consultation, to be carried out by the consultancy Giving Evidence, will invite input from any charity, foundation, public or private donor in the United Kingdom. Through an open ‘crowd-sourcing’ process, including a series of focus groups in London, Edinburgh, Bradford, Manchester and Cardiff, the project will challenge the sector to tell it what research would be of most use.

This approach – of engaging the intended end-users of research in the process of deciding what should be researched – is relatively new to the charity and philanthropy sectors but has proven powerful in other sectors in terms of generating research focused on the issues most salient to its intended users.

The pioneering and rigorous consultation process that Charity Futures and Giving Evidence will be undertaking is based on a process created and used by the James Lind Alliance (JLA) which works in healthcare, to allow patients affected by particular conditions, their carers and doctors to identify and prioritise unanswered questions for further research. For example, the current research on cataracts is heavy on early detection and how to improve management; however, when patients and healthcare professionals were involved in a recent JLA priority setting partnership, the top priority question for this area was how can cataracts be prevented from developing? The potential implications of the findings from this consultation are that more research will be available into the areas that can improve the effectiveness of charities.

The consultation begins this month, with focus groups in May and June. The final conclusions of the study (due in May 2019) will be a prioritised list of research questions which donors and charities have raised. It will be published and available to anybody, including academics, researchers, research funders, donors, charities and policy bodies interested in charities and philanthropy.

The project is supported by a distinguished advisory group of funders, private donors, researchers, charity leaders and umbrella bodies.

If VSSN members have any networks of practitioners that would be interested in participating in the upcoming focus group discussions, please contact Christopher Penny ( for further details and invitations.








New year: time to bring politics and values back in

Linda Milbourne and Mike Aiken reflect on ethical values for research and action, drawing on discussion from the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in September 2017


Much is changing in the voluntary sector (VS) research field with many new connections and developments but we argue that there is a need to confront the political challenges and orthodoxy both within the research community and in the wider world.

Firstly we outline the current context and some transitions in research, and then point to ways that researchers could rethink and reframe debates.

Current context for voluntary sector research

Austerity has been profoundly damaging to the fabric of local communities, with no shortage of evidence on the dramatic increases in homelessness and the use of food banks over the last few years, along with a recently published JRF report on UK poverty. Yet the current Conservative government appears to deny the extent of widespread poverty, hardship and social inequalities. This increasingly raises questions about the position of many civil society organisations which, for some thirty or so years, have sought to locate themselves within the political mainstream of a now impoverished and rapidly privatising welfare provision. In parallel, such positioning has largely suppressed or silenced their campaigning roles, effectively separating most welfare charities from advocacy and campaign groups.

Up until recently, research in the VS field (particularly in the UK and US) has tended to be internal looking: exploring historical developments, teasing out definitions and features of the voluntary sector (as distinct from other sectors), focusing on volunteering roles, and often viewing issues from the inside out, rather than exploring shared interests across a wider range of research or practice fields. This research has also been distinct from work on social movements and activism.

We recognize that this is changing, and that the scope of VS research has broadened, with studies drawing on different theoretical frameworks and international perspectives, illustrated by papers presented at the September conference (such as on refugee movements, involvement in public health, criminal justice, education and housing). This marks a valuable shift to address common welfare concerns, to study crossover and differences between sectors and countries, and to draw on a wider frame of reference through which to conceptualise debates.

Challenging the starting point

However, much VS research still seems caught in the inevitability of market discourse, with the focus on competing for funds and contracts assumed as an accepted and acceptable way of life. This all too readily allows altruistic motivation to cede to competition and self-interested pursuits, and as Nancy Fraser[1]  argues more widely, has led to a crisis of caring and ethics in society. A critical analysis of the VS’s role in shoring up contractual cultures and more recently, corporations with questionable practices, is clearly called for but we need much more than criticism.

Outlining a society where people feel abandoned by government and public institutions can’t cope, Stuart Etherington[2] has recently called for a rethink of the role of ‘civil society’. His model advocates citizens as co-creators of outcomes, emphasising a much bigger role for community based organisations and local level democracy, to counteract increasing disillusionment with state and political systems. We don’t disagree with the need rethink the role and positioning of organisations within civil society, nor with criticisms concerning the disregard of ruling politicians. However, the renewed emphasis on voluntary association and citizen’s action is overly reminiscent of defunct Big Society schemes which floundered without adequate resources and infrastructure. Seeking to build local connections and trust in an untrustworthy world is laudable but it doesn’t pay the rent, and this proposed ‘way forward’ for the common good completely fails to address underlying structural causes of poverty. While some civil society organisations engage in proffering voluntary ‘band-aid’ but can do little to effect real change to the root causes of poverty, others are encouraged to rely on engaging with the kind of debt structures that led to financial disasters ensuing from the banking collapse which logically should have seen the death of neo-liberal economics (Crouch, 2011[3]).

Therefore, we need to challenge the basis of the politico-economic regime, highlighting its increasingly destructive social outcomes for too many people in our society. Much discussion has highlighted the space that can be found for improvements within current arrangements even in the worst regimes – the wriggle room that allows VOs to deliver at least some aspect of their original missions – and it is argued that this is better than nothing. However, seeking improvements in competitive commissioning and procurement practices or shoring up welfare gaps through voluntary action is not enough; instead, we need to confront the dominance of market discourse and the causes of our current ‘so-called’ austerity and construct more logical alternatives for allocating social resources.

Applying ‘band aid’ or addressing causes?

‘Band aid’ work, while hard to criticise, may be a distraction from understanding and confronting the causes of poverty, and can add instead to shoring up ‘common sense’ myths about the need for austerity policies, in turn resulting in normalising injustices and inequalities. Many forward looking charities, campaigning organisations and social movements within civil society have historically assumed a role in challenging such norms: for example, those engaged in the anti-slavery movement or the suffragette movement; and later, those who fought to establish social housing, universal welfare benefits and a public health service. More recently, groups have challenged people traffickers, violence against women and campaigned for ethnic minority, and gay and lesbian and transgender rights; or focused around shared issues in a locality or neighbourhood. This illustrates the multiple ways that formal and informal civil society groups have refused to adopt supposedly common-sense understandings and have been prepared to confront injustice and seek social change. This is civil society at work, deliberating values, actions and wider political consequences and researching supporting evidence.

Such challenges and alternatives enable a different vision, premised on recreating ideas of care, welfare and justice across society. In this way, civil society organisations can collaborate in aspirations for a more just society, rather than colluding in neo-liberal arrangements, supporting corporate profits and the destruction of public welfare systems and social gains built up over more than 150 years. Failing to assert alternatives and accepting ‘the way things are’ also entails acceptance of long-term and growing destitution as an inevitable fallout. A different vision also demands that we confront and distinguish wellbeing in society from the rapidly privatizing welfare state, essentially re-examining the contradictions between financial accumulation and care, and between markets, individualized gain and wider social welfare and equality.

Creating alternatives then depends on a better informed analysis of the increasingly punitive nature of neo-liberal regimes, which critics (eg Davies, 2016[iv]) argue are unsustainable, with the erosion of wages and multiple support structures. As activist researchers, we therefore need to draw on a wider arena of thinking than has often been the case, and to explore the interconnected features of civil society organizations engaged in social welfare and wider social action. This means creating alliances across broader research fields and shared interest groups to examine and challenge the attrition of civil society’s rights, irrespective of sector or type of organization.

This argues the need to examine changes among civil society roles more widely beyond welfare provision and to recognize that constraints on civil society have seen the erosion of democratic freedoms around the world – including the freedom to speak, act and move about freely. This freedom – or independence – has been prized in traditional VS narratives but is now restricted by law, contract and ideology. It’s been easy to fall back on ideas of association – an unproblematised vision of altruistic organisations but we need to explore conflicting narratives. Not all CSOs are benign. They may promote separatist and exclusionary interests which benefit a few but damage many. The rise of racism and violence following the Brexit vote offers one example but history provides others – such as the rise of fascism in the 1930s from rich associational life. This means acknowledging difference, being unafraid to challenge assumptions about the benefits of voluntary associations, and pursuing research analytically and critically.

Locating voluntary sector research in its wider socio-political context

One message for research then is to dig deeper and think outside the box. Within the research field and the wider world this means overcoming significant ideological challenges, some of which activists have been taking on. Future research needs to challenge current discourse, and collaborate across sector boundaries and interest groups. It needs to shift its focus to embrace a broader world view which explores CS roles and values in relation to wider political, social and economic changes in society, including social movements, campaigns and virtual worlds. That’s not ignoring the need to understand detailed features and finer arrangements but detailed local experiences also need to be located and understood within the bigger picture.

If we omit to make these wider connections, we risk narrowing our research perspectives and excluding crucial debates and experiences that are currently challenging society – especially concerning the erosion of democracy and freedoms and destruction of public welfare. Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in sustaining the values of democracy and democratic freedoms, and as researchers, we have a critical role in sustaining that

1 Fraser, N. (2016) ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’ New Left Review, 100 (July–August), 99–117.

2 Etherington, S. (2017) ‘Voluntary Action: a way forward’ CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness, November 2017.

3 Crouch, C. (2011) The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

4 Davies, W. (2016) ‘The new neoliberalism’. New Left Review, 101 (Sept.–Oct.), 121–34.


Call for nominations and volunteers

Would you like to support the work of VSSN? Do you have ideas about you’d like to see VSSN develop?

If so, please consider nominating yourself for a place on either or both of:

  • the VSSN Steering Group
  • the Editorial Management Board of Voluntary Sector Review, the journal produced by VSSN with Policy Press

It is a self-nomination process; you do not need to be nominated by someone else.

Simply complete the VSSN Steering Group nomination form and/or the Voluntary Sector Review Editorial Management Board nomination form and return to the VSSN office by 21st October at the latest.

You must be a paid-up member of VSSN by 24th October in order to nominate yourself.  New members are welcome!

More information about the roles and the election process here. We look forward to receiving your nomination.

Bookings open – Youth social action: What do we know about young people’s participation?

VSSN is holding its next day conference on 22nd November 2016 at the University of Birmingham.

The theme is ‘Youth social action: What do we know about young people’s participation?’ and the five papers being presented explore subjects such as the National Citizenship Service, young feminist online activism, alienation and transition.

Visit our event page for the full programme including abstracts and speaker biographies.

Booking deadline: 8th November

Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference 2015: Call for papers open!


8th-9th September 2015


The annual voluntary sector and volunteering research conference will be taking place on 8th – 9th September 2015 at Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the call for papers is now open!

VSSN have again partnered with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) to organise the conference, which draws academics, practitioners and policy makers from across the UK and internationally.

We’ve worked hard this year to reach out to a wide range of people. It’s an interdisciplinary conference which will be of interest to all those researching issues related to voluntary organisations and volunteering. This might include disciplines such as social policy, geography, economics, psychology or politics but is completely open.  You absolutely don’t, however, need to be a researcher based within a University to get involved and we’re really keen to receive abstracts from those with backgrounds in voluntary sector organisations, policy, think tanks and consultancy.

You can submit a paper, or propose a whole session. We would welcome papers presenting research regarding any aspect of the voluntary sector and volunteering, but here are some themes we’re particularly keen to receive submissions on:

  • Civil society and democracy: new challenges and opportunities?
  • Volunteering and participation in times of change: past, present and future?
  • Grassroots voluntary activity in challenging times: past perspectives and new forms?
  • Diversity, inequalities and the voluntary sector: uneven engagement and impacts?
  • Social welfare and voluntary services: evolving relationships between civil society, the state and the market?
  • Funding the future? Funding, fundraising and philanthropy in challenging times
  • Voluntary sector governance and management: relationships within and across organisations
  • Education and training in and on the voluntary sector: what do we know? What do we need?
  • New directions in theoretical debates and research methods: learning from diverse perspectives?

The deadline for abstracts is on .

More details about the conference, including how to submit your paper.

We hope to receive an abstract from you, and to see you at the conference!

New edition of Voluntary Sector Review

Just out! The latest issue of Voluntary Sector Review. This is perhaps one of the best benefits of being a member of VSSN.

This issue has research articles covering: ‘Growing philanthropy through Collaboration: Giving circles…’ (Angela Eikenberry et al); ‘The Role of Cultural Capital in Explaining who Volunteers’ (Naomi Harflett); ‘Towards Community Engagement…’ (Gina Rossi et al); Enhancing Service Development…through do-design’ (Busayawan Lam et al).

There is a policy review by James Rees (‘New ‘new localism or the emperor’s new clothes…’), a practice paper examining ‘The BME Third Sector: marginalised and exploited’ (Mary Tilki er al).

Short of time to read a book? Read book reviews of Michael Edwards’s ‘Civil Society and the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society’ (Pete Alcock); Georgina Brewis’s ‘Social History of Student Volunteering…’ (Clare Holdsworth) and James Hinton’s ‘The Mass Observers: A history…’ (reviewed by Duncan Scott).

There’ll be more details and links on the website soon, but VSSN members will receive their copy in the post soon.

Not a member? Get your copy (as well as many other benefits) by joining today.

Welcome to the new VSSN website

Welcome to the latest update of the VSSN website. It’s very much evolution rather than revolution. VSSN was slightly spread out across the web, with a main website and a separate membership directory, and separate content for new members.

We’ve brought all of these together in one place in the updated site. As a network, VSSN is its members, so we’ve put members at the heart of the site. Each member has their own profile, and is listed in the members directory. When you’re logged in you’ll get discounts on events and you can also search the directory for members with similar interests.

We’re also bringing the research that VSSN members do to the fore. All the papers from our day conferences and annual conference will be available on the site, and we’ll also be asking VSSN members to write blogs about the work they’re doing. The first blog post is from Rob Macmillan.

The new site is very much just a beginning. There’s lots of functionality that we haven’t yet activated – groups, discussions, the ability to list your own research papers. We’ll be working with members over the next few months to see what would be most useful for them.

We also need your help. The website has been created almost entirely voluntarily, and there are still some rough edges. So if you see something that’s broken or could be improved, do let us know, either by emailing, leaving a comment below, or filling in a bug report.

For the techy amongst you the website has been moved to WordPress, and we’ve also made use of BuddyPress and the Events Manager plugin. Hope you find the new site useful!