Launching UK-CAT

First published 06/07/2021:

Today we’re launching a new classification of charities in the UK, which aims to help researchers, umbrella bodies and others make sense of the diverse group of organisations that form the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector is defined by shared characteristics – legal form, volunteerism, non-profit distributing – but the sector covers such a wide range of organisations that to understand it you often need to look more closely at various subdivisions. This new classification system – which we’re calling UK Charity Activity Tags (UK-CAT) – adds “tags” to organisations to help understand the work they do, and identify groups of organisations. You can find tags for food banks, for example, or for charities working on rural issues. In all, we’ve created over 250 tags and defined rules for attaching them to charities.

We did this because we found the existing systems for classifying charities weren’t working. The Charity Commission allows charities to select categories when they register, but these categories are very high level and miss out on the detail of what organisations are doing. And the international classification applied by NCVO in the Civil Society Almanac (ICNPO) misses the nuances of a UK context, and includes too many “catch-all” categories. Esmée Fairbairn Foundation funded this project, involving CRESR at Sheffield Hallam University, NCVO, and David Kane, a freelance researcher, to create a new classification.

We’ve described our method in more detail in two previous blog posts: Classifying the charity register and A UK Classification System. In short, we took a sample of over 4,000 registered charities and manually classified each one, creating new tags as we went along and encountered different types of charities. This sample could then be used to generate and test keyword-based rules for automatic classification of charities, as well as training machine-learning models.

We’re launching the results of this project today, after previously presenting it at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research conference in Birmingham earlier in September. You can view the results and download all the data from the project, including a full list of UK charities with the classification system applied. There’s much more detail on the project website,

Although we’re launching this today, we don’t consider the job to be finished. We’re well aware that the complexity and variety in the sector makes our task a never ending challenge – so we need your help to make the next version better. The system will also reflect our experiences and biases as researchers and other people will have expertise in the parts of the sector that we have tagged.

We’d love to have your feedback on the classification system and the project generally. This could be feedback on the tags themselves: what tags are missing, what’s the right term to use? Or on how the rules are applied to the charities – are we catching some charities that aren’t relevant? Is a group of charities not getting captured? There’s a feedback form on the website above, or you can email

With over 200,000 active registered charities in the UK, we won’t have got every decision right, or perfectly captured the makeup of the sector. But we hope that UK-CAT will provide a valuable tool for those who want to understand the voluntary sector better.


2021 conference booking is now open!

Booking for the 2021 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference is now open.

Please use this link to access the Aston University booking site:


This year, we have decided to make access for those working at voluntary organisations slightly easier. So VSSN members and anyone from a voluntary, community, social enterprise or faith organisation can book at the member rate.


We have created a Frequently Asked Questions page to offer advice on where to stay, how to get to the venue, and the other events occurring at the conference:


More information about the conference, including the draft programme and details for presenters on their paper submissions, will be sent out very soon.


Any questions please either email us at:, or use Twitter: @VSSN_UK

Conference Organising Committee

VSVR Annual Research Conference



Twitter: @VSSN_UK

A UK Charity Classification System

Our aim

In our previous blog, we introduced our project to refresh the classification of the national charity registers into ICNPTSO (activity area) categories, using keyword searching, and where possible applying machine learning techniques. To our knowledge, this was last attempted at scale over a decade ago.  

We also, however, acknowledged some of the challenges UK researchers face when using the ICNPTSO categories. These categories are broad groupings, originally designed to help enable international comparisons of non-profit organisations, particularly as part of national accounting processes. There are large gaps in a UK context, with notable omissions such as food banks, drug addiction services, or domestic violence refuges.

As part of our project, therefore, we wanted to develop and publish a new, additional classification system, alongside the ICNPTSO. We refer to these classifications informally as ‘tags’ and have aimed to make them more UK specific, more fine grained, and to allow charities to be associated with several tags at once.

Our method

This UK Charity Classification System (suggestions for a catchier name than UKCCS on the back of a postcard please), was developed iteratively over the early stages of the project. Each week we revisited the list of tags to make any changes in light of that week’s classification work. 

Our classifications are derived from the activities that charities write about in their annual returns. Where possible we have tried to hone in on what it is that makes an organisational ‘charitable’. In other words, what is the charity’s mission? 

Some define this in terms of a desired outcome, such as a less polluted world. Others focus on a particular group that they seek to help, such as military veterans. And others still focus on the specific activity or facility, for example offering benefits advice. Whilst trying to avoid overlap, we have included all of these types in the tagging framework to at least some degree.

The classifications included so far can be viewed on our Airtable list of charity tags.  

How successful have we been?

It is with some trepidation that we release our draft tagging framework into the world. Why? Because it is almost certainly ‘wrong’, or at least ‘not quite right’. Because of course there is no right set of categories, no right level of specificity, and no right use of terminology. Instead, we are in the businesses of trade-offs, sacrificing some potential benefits for others.

Furthermore, the tagging system remains a work in progress. As we start to develop keyword search rules, we are likely to continue to consolidate the list. There is little point, however, in asking for feedback at the very end of the development process. 

Harder still, we are aware that as authors of the tagging framework, we are implicitly helping to make some charity groupings more visible, whilst submerging or obscuring others. Some authors argue that this can help to reinforce existing power structures in society. They question who benefits from these classifications?

For our part, we hope the framework will be useful primarily for research, including by analysts from within the sector themselves. It is inherently a somewhat conservative approach, as we hope to capture the fields that charities and researchers are already using to frame their activities, rather than develop categories that are deliberately novel or challenging. 

How many tags?

The tagging framework is currently over 260 tags long, though it may become shorter. Its length may make it unwieldy and difficult to apply without a high level of familiarity. More nuance also arguably allows more room for ambiguity and disagreement over which tag fits best.

On the other hand, it is inevitably not long enough. Undoubtedly some users will be frustrated that their area of interest has not been included. Sometimes a combination of tags will be needed to capture a particular area of activity.

We have tried, as far as this is possible, to be led by the data itself. When in doubt, we entered key terms into the existing keyword charity search tool, always aiming for a minimum of 100-200 associated charities. Users are, of course, able to use this tool themselves to create their own searches for bespoke groups.


Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, we would welcome your feedback on the categories! We are keen to break out of our own ‘group think’ and understand how meaningful these categories are to a wider audience. 

  • Are there too many tags, or not enough?
  • Have we missed any major areas, or are any of the tags superfluous?
  • Is our hierarchy of categories and subcategories the right one?

Please send us your thoughts via our feedback form

As noted above, the classifications can be viewed on our Airtable list of charity tags.  


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

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). 

VSSN’s repository for research on Covid-19 and voluntary action

As part of VSSN’s goal to help maximise the visibility and impact of Voluntary Sector focussed research, we are collating research projects which focus on VCS and volunteering responses to, recovery from and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have had a great response, and there are 18 studies to explore on this page.

If you would like your project to be visible on the VSSN website, please fill in the form here. It would be great to hear about projects in development as well as those in progress, as this should help to reduce any risk of duplication and open up possibilities of collaboration.

Read more and submit your research project here.

Reminder: Covid-19 and voluntary action research repository

As part of VSSN’s goal to help maximise the visibility and impact of Voluntary Sector focussed research, we are collating research projects which focus on VCS and volunteering responses to, recovery from and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have had a great response, and there are 18 studies to explore on this page.

If you would like your project to be visible on the VSSN website, please fill in the form here. It would be great to hear about projects in development as well as those in progress, as this should help to reduce any risk of duplication and open up possibilities of collaboration.

Read more and submit your research project here.

Duncan Scott – a eulogy

By now many colleagues will have heard the terribly sad news that our colleague and longstanding VSSN stalwart Duncan Scott has passed away. He died on 18th May after a severe stroke.

Duncan was a pioneer and champion of voluntary sector research in the UK, and at the forefront of landmark discussions which led to the formation of VSSN back in the 1990s. He promoted voluntary sector studies in academia, through his long career as a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Policy at the University of Manchester. He researched, wrote and spoke about a wide range of topics, often with a practical focus, including funding voluntary organisations, volunteering and service delivery contracts, social enterprise, rural deprivation and voluntary action and qualitative research methods.

Beyond this, and perhaps more significantly, he was a tireless advocate for community-based research. He recognised the importance of supporting those in voluntary organisations and community groups who needed to get vital research done quickly, but who had neither ready access to all the resources on offer in Universities, nor the sometimes breezy academic confidence about research methods. He played significant advisory and committee roles with, for example, the Institute for Volunteering Research, Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, Third Sector Research Centre and of course VSSN.

Duncan was very supportive of new researchers and doctoral students, finding creative ways to bring people together to discuss common issues and concerns in voluntary sector research. In the early 2000s he convened several significant sessions through VSSN around qualitative research. This drew from and formed the basis of several important publications with colleagues, including ‘Moving Pictures: Realities of voluntary action’ (2000); ‘Close Work: Doing qualitative research
in the voluntary sector’ (2005) and ‘Researching voluntary and community action: The potential of qualitative case studies’ (2005). Duncan was always keen to discuss the messy practice of carrying out research, and often implored colleagues to bring case study research in the voluntary sector alive, to act as witnesses, to ‘show us that you’ve been there!’

Many of us will have worked with or come across Duncan in our research, and will treasure fond memories of his self-deprecating humour, his commitment, his support, gentle challenges, insight and wisdom, and in the end of simply having spent time with him.

To help mark Duncan’s contribution to voluntary sector studies, we have set up a padlet page for colleagues to share reflections. You can access the page by clicking on this link: Simply visit the page and click on the + sign to add your comments.

Rob Macmillan
Sheffield Hallam University

VSSN and VSR election results

VSSN is delighted to announce the results of recent elections for the VSSN steering group and the Voluntary Sector Review Editorial Management Board (EMB).


For the steering group:


  • Jane Cullingworth was re-elected
  • Vita Terry was elected
  • Jurgen Grotz was elected


For the EMB:

  • Feilim OhAdmaill was re-elected
  • Joanne Vincett was elected


Congratulations to the successful nominees and thank you to everyone who stood for election, it is much appreciated. We would also like to thank again retiring steering group members Linda Milbourne and Mike Woolvin and retiring EMB member Eddy Hogg for their huge contributions.

Report from Jon Dean: Building bridges: Volunteering Research and Practice Workshop – 7 June 2018


During Volunteers Week, the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, the Association of Volunteer Managers, and the National Network of Volunteer-Involving Agencies organised an event focused on bringing university-based volunteering researchers and sector practitioners together. Hosted at NCVO, the five-hour workshop sought to build bridges between these two groups, who, frankly, should have a better connection. Around a dozen presenters, from universities and voluntary organisations, delivered short challenges to the 40 attendees, followed by lots of intense discussion.


Helen Timbrell, Executive Director of People and Organisational Development at the Samaritans, perhaps said it best when she directly addressed the need for us all to be a little less comfortable. Charities need to engage with research even if it shows they could be doing their work better, and researchers need to recognise that if their work isn’t made use of, what purpose does it serve?


Academic researchers are well-aware that our writing is often obtuse and our findings are hidden away in journals no right-thinking person would ever want to engage with; and charities frequently want a ‘quick win’ in research terms to showcase impact to a funder, rather than completing long-term and thorough investigations. Being honest about these different priorities is vital, especially at a time when both groups are seeing less available resource to devote to research.


As a member of the VSSN’s Steering Group, and a researcher focused on charity issues at Sheffield Hallam University, I will be the first to admit that I don’t personally do enough to make any research I do useful for sector practitioners. A lot of it is not always applicable in the day-to-day functioning of charities, focused perhaps on sociological trends rather than specific problem-solving, but talking to practitioners at this event showed a yearning for insight into the challenges the sector will face over the next decade, with the growth of digital and the retirement of the baby boomers the most frequently discussed issues.


What was invigorating to see at the end of the event was a commitment to be a bit better in the future. The different priorities will always exist, and they are unavoidable, but many individuals from a variety of organisations left the workshop promising to make some specific changes, such as a promise to invest resources in examining the sector’s failure to embrace greater diversity and what we can do about it, to a commitment to approaching universities for research opportunities. I myself will certainly commit to producing and promoting freely accessible, more practitioner-centred research in future (alongside the dusty journals).


The good news is we already know a huge amount about the voluntary sector: around what works and doesn’t work in fundraising; around the motivations behind and benefits of volunteering; and around charity leadership. Rather than re-inventing the wheel and doing the same research again, what events like this one reaffirmed was the need to get that knowledge into the right hands, and the fact that the opportunities to do it already exist. Through social media feeds, discussion lists, direct emails, and more engaged face to face events and conferences like this one, if everyone’s willing to be a little less comfortable, the rewards may well be worth it.

Report from Irene Hardill: Building bridges: Volunteering Research and Practice Workshop – 7 June 2018

Personal reflections

Rather appropriately the Building Bridges volunteering research and practice workshop, co-hosted by the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, Association of Volunteer Managers and the Network of National Volunteer Involving Agencies and supported by NCVO, was held during Volunteering Week. Through their networks the co-convenors attracted a diverse audience united by a commitment to understanding and supporting the growth of voluntary action and a desire to strengthen collaborative working between volunteer managers and researchers.

The atmosphere was incredibly welcoming, I met new people, and met colleagues some of whom I hadn’t seen for several years. I certainly learned a lot. The format of the day facilitated knowledge sharing, and the mobilisation of multiple knowledges. The latter effectively happens when knowledge is co-produced, and knowledge/evidence is presented in accessible formats targeted for specific audiences.

Key messages from the day for me as a university researcher include:

  • The importance of co-producing knowledge, of collaborating from the outset when identifying research questions
  • Of ensuring that research findings are presented available in accessible formats in order to inform decision making.
  • Of thinking of conduits that can be used to ensure that new knowledge is easily and efficiently ‘discovered’ by the sector
  • Of the importance of networks that create the spaces and places for conversations between those committed to supporting voluntary action

Irene Hardill, Northumbria University