Community-level perspectives on post-war change in the British voluntary sector

Project outline 

Long-run change in the distribution of registered charities in England and Wales

There’s a growing debate in voluntary sector research about spatial inequalities in the distribution of voluntary organisations and their resources. This has long historical roots – John Stuart Mill was making the point in the 1840s that “charity always does too much or too little. It lavishes its bounty in one place, and leaves people to starve in another”. Other historical examples include fivefold disparities in levels of access to hospital treatment prior to the NHS; the influential Wolfenden Committee of the 1970s commented extensively on community-level variations, unrelated to social need, in the distribution of organisations; while the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank established by Iain Duncan-Smith, referred to “charity deserts” in several publications.

So far most studies have been cross-sectional – that is, they have focussed on one point in time. In this paper we use forty years of data from the Charity Commission for England and Wales to track the distribution of charitable organisations from 1971 – 2011. We link our statistics on charities to population and socioeconomic data from a project which has reaggregated population data to a consistent set of spatial units (there have been significant changes to local authority boundaries over time) and which has also recalculated indicators of disadvantage (the Townsend Index of Deprivation, widely used since the early 1980s) in a consistent way over time.

As a result we can draw a number of conclusions about the pattern of charitable organisations. Firstly, there has been considerable growth in both population and in the numbers of organisations, so that generally the ratio of charities to population has increased (some of this is due to a broadening of the criteria used to determine the eligibility of charities), though we can also identify some outliers, where that ratio has not increased. Secondly,  the distribution has been relatively stable. In other words, areas that had larger numbers of charities, relative to population, in the early 1970s were in the same position 40 years later. Thirdly, there is a strongly negative relationship between the distribution of charitable organisations and indicators of disadvantage. Thus, although it is the case that charities have been expected to take on more of a social welfare role over the period in question, we do not see a narrowing of the gap in the distribution of organisations. in fact the negative correlation between disadvantage and the charity: population ratio has strengthened over time, indicating greater inequality. The graph below illustrates this:

distribution of charities

This connects to wider discussions about what charity can, and cannot, be expected to do. Plainly, because the distribution of charitable resources is closely related to levels of prosperity, we cannot expect convergence between areas without considerable support for the development of such organisations, including funding to help organisations become established and sustainable. More generally, there are emerging social scientific debates about the contribution that charitable organisations make to neighbourhood social outcomes. North American scholarship makes much of the wider contribution of a strong voluntary sector infrastructure to neighbourhood development and quality of life. Evidence such as this seems to suggest that it is the most prosperous areas which will benefit to the greatest extent. 

Continuity and change in the English voluntary sector: community-level perspectives

Despite concerns that British voluntary organisations would face an uncertain future as the welfare state expanded after 1945, there was actually considerable post-war growth (Mohan and Backus, forthcoming). Academic commentary emphasises large national entities, but most British voluntary organisations are small and locally-focussed. There have been studies of community-level variations in the organisational mix but community-level changes in the numbers, types and character of organisations have received little attention.

The study of such changes matters. A better understanding of how the voluntary sector has reinvented itself would provide a firmer basis for evaluating whether the high contemporary expectations invested in voluntary organisations - particularly their perceived responsiveness and ability to meet changing social needs – will be fulfilled.

We want to make three original contributions in this project, which will provide a long-term perspective on themes of: stability, change and innovation in the voluntary sector; community-level changes in the distribution and character of organisations; and relationships with government and major funders:

  1. We will revisit previous important studies of the voluntary sector in particular communities and provide a unique perspective on organisational survival, closure/formation, and adaptation. No British research has investigated these issues over the timescale envisaged (1945 to date), although there are longitudinal projects, and repeated cross-sectional surveys, over shorter.
  2. We will analyse relationships between the changing nature of communities (e.g. through processes such as deindustrialisation, immigration, and urban renewal), and the changing nature of local voluntary sectors
  3. Through case studies of organisations in Birmingham, we consider relationships between voluntary organisations and (i) government policies and (ii) major funders of the voluntary sector, respectively, and in particular how new organisations have been actively created by state intervention and philanthropic investment, and what the long-term results of those strategies have been. 

Key research questions

What is the extent of change and stability, in terms of organisational survival / closure and establishment of new organisations, in the voluntary sector in our selected communities? To what extent have new organisations been established in response to socio-economic changes?

What has been the response of voluntary organisations to changes in the funding environment – e.g. funding streams associated with public policies? Do organisations move from one funding stream to another, and what does this mean for their mission and ethos? To what extent have organisations been able to rely on established philanthropic sources of income or have they become “hybrid” entities characterised by a mix of income sources  – and if so, when did that transition take place.

The project will also study the interdependence between statutory bodies and the third sector and the ways in which organisations have negotiated and renegotiated relationships with the state, with other voluntary organisations, and with other stakeholders such as funders.

In all these, an overarching question is what constitutes success for voluntary organisations: survival, adherence to original mission, successful evolution to meet changing needs, or principled reluctance to move into new fields?

Sources and methods

For a study of change such as this, we draw on a number of sources. These include local surveys and directories of organisations, regulatory registers such as those provided by Companies House and the Charity Commission, and the archives of individual voluntary organisations and local authorities.

We will seek to these historic records to the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC)’s unique quantitative databases covering registered charities and non-profit organisations, including incorporation and dissolution dates. Such linkage will enable analysis of the pattern of formation and dissolution of organisations, and of trends in the financial position of organisations.

The strategies and tactics adopted by selected organisations, and their perceptions of their external environment, including changing relations with statutory bodies, will be explored through archival material from individual organisations, records of voluntary sector infrastructure bodies (e.g. local Councils for Voluntary Service) and interviews with current  and former staff. 


  • John Mohan
  • Liz Bailey
  • Phil Child
  • Diarmuid McDonnell


At the International Society for Third Sector Research, Liz Bailey presented a paper on Support and Advocacy for ethnic minorities and migrants in Bethnal Green from the 1970s to the 1990s, and Phil Child presented on “Beveridge, ‘active citizenship’ and ‘Blacktown’: defining voluntary action in mid-twentieth century Britain.

Abstract: History of Voluntary Sector in England: Support and Advocacy for Ethnic Minorities and Migrants in Bethnal Green 1970s-1990s
Dr Elizabeth Cookingham Bailey

Abstract: Beveridge, ‘Active Citizenship’ and ‘Blacktown’: defining voluntary action in mid-twentieth century Britain
Dr Phil Child