‘Serious data gap’ holding back charity sector

Charity sector leaders – led by research charity Pro Bono Economics – have today called for a cross-sector strategy to plug a “serious data gap” holding charities back.

A new report for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society has drawn attention to major holes in official data about the sector.

It has raised concerns that decision-makers in government and at the top of charities are often operating in the dark when it comes to a sector employing almost a million people.

The report, titled ‘Better data, bigger impact: A review of social sector data, urges government departments and bodies – the Treasury, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Office for National Statistics and regulators – to come together and collaborate with the social sector to improve data as part of the National Data Strategy.

Five solutions proposed by the Commission have been backed by sector leaders, including the chief executives of data charity 360Giving and leading umbrella organisation the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

In a wide-ranging report, the Commission, produced by PBE, highlights how much of civil society data is stuck in unreadable formats, as well as the disparity with statistics on businesses, which are substantially more advanced.

The report’s five main recommendations to improve social sector data are:

  • Produce social economy satellite accounts so that the ONS releases regular statistics about the social sector’s contribution to the economy which are comparable to the private sector.
  • Make better use of existing administrative and survey data that covers the social sector, such as breaking out figures for the social sector in government surveys.
  • Publish regular, timely indicators on the social sector so there are up-to-date figures on sector finances and organisational births and deaths.
  • Modernise the collection of social sector data, for example through digitising PDFs that are not machine-readable.
  • Establish a cross-sector Social Sector Data Standards and Coordination Working Group so government and the sector can work in partnership to solve these issues.

The new report points to the data routinely collected on private sector organisations by the ONS, which was used effectively to inform the government’s furlough scheme, as an example of the type of official data lacking on the social sector.

The report also highlights landmark public sector data reviews, the Bean Review and Atkinson Review, as precedents a social sector data review can learn from.

Specifically, the report recommends DCMS take the lead in setting up a cross-sector working group with the objective of developing a National Social Sector Data Strategy.


Anoushka Kenley, Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics, said:

“There is a chasm between the information we have on businesses and the information we have on charities right now.

“The public funds charities to deliver crucial contracts such as adoption services and to provide social and mental health care, yet up-to-date data doesn’t exist on how much government funding the sector receives.

“Tens of millions of people volunteer each year, yet we can’t calculate with any accuracy whether more people volunteer for homelessness charities or food banks.

“The pandemic reminded us all of the extraordinary reach and impact of the social sector in the UK. But at the same time, the upheaval of the pandemic brought into focus a serious data gap that has long dogged the sector and created a blind spot for government.

“Filling this data gap can be done and would go a long way to freeing the social sector to deliver even more impact than it already does. It requires the sector itself to take an active role but it also relies on leadership from government.

“PBE’s review of social sector data has made five key recommendations for the sector and government that we believe would help to fill this yawning gap. It requires cross-sector effort and collaboration but will only strengthen the social sector’s contribution to this country and its social fabric.”


Ed Humpherson, Director General of the Office for Statistics Regulation, said:

“We all know charities, community organisations and social enterprises played a crucial role in communities across the UK during the pandemic. Yet we have little clue about how these organisations were impacted, including the number of civil society employees that were furloughed, how many groups faced growing demand for support, or the impact of lockdown on their finances.

“We have seen in the pandemic how data has become vital, not just to policymakers – those who are making decisions on lockdowns, social distancing, testing, and vaccinations. It also matters to ordinary people.

“Filling this data gap will enable us to better recognise the fundamental role played by civil society.

“It will help policymakers to make more rounded, evidence-based decisions – informed by the contribution of civil society – on the likes of national wellbeing, levelling up and all manner of key policy goals. And it will show citizens how the civil society organisations they know and love are recognised and valued by those in government.”


Sarah Vibert, Interim CEO of NCVO, said:

“This timely report is much-needed and captures where we find ourselves as a sector. We fully endorse the recommendations in the report, particularly the establishment of a joint-owned and funded cross-sector Social Sector Data Standards and Co-ordination Working Group.

“Only a collaborative venture, between the social sector and government, will be capable of realising the ambitions outlined in the report.

“This report should be a roadmap for action. DCMS, NCVO and national infrastructure organisations have identified strengthening the evidence and data on the social sector as a shared priority.

“Many of the challenges and opportunities highlighted in the report are longstanding and well-known: now is the time for us to act. NCVO is willing and ready to play whatever role is of most value to do this.

“We need to significantly improve data about, for, and from the social sector.  As the report notes, better data isn’t just about better policy or stronger organisations; it is about communities being better served by charities, social enterprises, and public services.”


Tania Cohen, CEO of 360Giving, said:

“I welcome the review of social sector data and the recommendations for investment in the data infrastructure.

“The pandemic has emphasised the importance of having good quality and timely data available to inform decision-making, and the crucial role of the social sector across the UK.

“We need to engage in a collective effort to put in place the infrastructure for the future to understand and value the social sector.

“We need more and better-quality data to inform strategy, policy and practice in order to maximise the impact for communities and make the best use of funds available.”