Surveying the sector

The most difficult aspect of the State of the Sector research programme continues to be the generation of an accurate sampling frame for the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. While charity registration is underway in Northern Ireland there is still not enough voluntary and community organisations registered to create a robust sampling frame. By working with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI), NICVA combined the data on registered charities along with NICVA’s own database to create the most robust sampling frame in State of the Sector to date.

Note: Percentages in tables and graphs may not equal 100% due to rounding.

Changes in Methodology

The methodology of State of the Sector differs to what NICVA has traditionally used. In previous State of the Sectors questionnaires were circulated in hard copy, however on this occasion NICVA used an online survey platform, Survey Gizmo, to design, develop and disseminate the survey.

Previously, as part of the State of the Sector research, one survey has been used to capture information on organisations profile, volunteers, income, expenditure and forecast. However, during piloting, the length of the survey was identified as a potential barrier to respondents. As a result the survey was divided into two. The first ('State of the Sector'), included questions on organisational profile, volunteers, income and expenditure and was circulated between October and December 2015. The second survey ('Sector Forecast'), included questions on organisations’ views for the year ahead, and was circulated between February and March 2016. As a result, each survey was not necessarily responded to by the same organisations.


The questions within both surveys were based on previous State of the Sector surveys and the question format used throughout was closed-ended and rank order.

State of the Sector

In October 2015 the State of the Sector Survey (SOS) was circulated to 4,176 organisations. The survey was live for eight weeks and a prize incentive was offered to respondents. Reminder emails were sent in order to maximise the response rate alongside follow-up phone calls. A 19.7% response rate was achieved, in total 824 organisations. The spread of SOS Survey respondents across the different income bands is displayed below.


This State of the Sector research provides a snapshot study, as the same organisations that responded to the previous State of the Sector Survey (2011) may not necessarily have responded this time.

In 2016 State of the Sector Survey respondents provided their total income which made it possible to recode the under £10,000 income band to an <= £10,000 income band as used by the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI). This subsequently facilitated a comparison of the income distribution for the survey respondents with the accredited income from the annual reports of 999 registered charities in Northern Ireland for the 2014-15 financial year.

The Charity Commission’s registration process is ongoing, and thus income information is held for only a sample of charities across Northern Ireland.


There is a close correlation between the two profiles, particularly for those organistions with an income of £20,000 or less. However it is not possible to draw conclusions about the representation of the SOS Survey sample for the following reasons:

  • First, the income data provided by SOS Survey respondents is based on the 2013-2014 financial year while the CCNI’s information is based on the 2014-15 financial year. This is because there were only 95 2013-14 accounts for registered charities (due to the recent creation of the Register of Charities) which would not have provided a large enough sample for comparison.
  • Second, the Charity Commission’s registration process is not complete and thus an income profile for all charities in Northern Ireland is not available.
  • Third, NICVA’s definition of organisations that fall within the voluntary and community sector differs to the legal definition of a charity in Northern Ireland.


Sector Forecast Survey

In January 2016 the Sector Forecast Survey was circulated to 4,113 organisations seeking their opinion about possible future developments in the sector and operational changes they anticipated within their organisation over the forthcoming year. Reminder emails were sent in order to maximise the response rate alongside follow-up phone calls. A total of 944 organisations responded to the survey, giving a response rate of 23%. The income breakdown for the Sector Forecast Survey is displayed below.


The income profile of the Sector Forecast Survey respondents has not been compared to the Charity Commission’s data due to the differences in the structure of the income question.

The difference in sampling frame total from the State of the Sector Survey was due to email bounces, i.e. email addresses that had become inactive in the timeframe between the two surveys.

Additional Data Sources

In addition to the above surveys a number of other sources were used for the State of the Sector research. These sources included NICVA’s 2014 Workforce Survey, the 2015 Individual Giving Survey, NICVA’s central administrative database, the Government Funders Database, 360 Giving, Grant Making Trusts, Freedom of Information requests to Government Departments and Non-Departmental Public Bodies, open datasets and directly from statutory, voluntary and community organisations.

The additional data sources are discussed in greater detail under the relevant chapter headings below.


The information used in the Profile section was gathered directly from the State of the Sector Survey and from NICVA’s administrative database. This section investigates the geographic spread of organisations by county, organisation type, the geographic remit of respondent organisations and the main areas of work conducted by voluntary and community organisations.

The total number of organisations was calculated using NICVA’s administrative database. All active organisations that were based in Northern Ireland and were categorised as a voluntary, community social enterprise, sports, church/faith based or charity organisation were included in the total. Organisations that were categorised as a project, department or service were excluded from the total.

Income and Expenditure

The Income and Expenditure section was updated in August 2019 and examines, where possible, the 2017-18 funding environment for the sector, with data collected from the Government Funders Database, Grant Making Trusts, the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, NICVA's Individual Giving 2019 and directly from  funders. Comparisons to previous years findings were made where possible, but this was restricted due to different sources of data used in this 2017-18 update.

Central and Local Government

The compilation of an economic map of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland continues to be a complex task. NICVA used information from the Government Funders Database as the main source of data which included funding awarded by central and government as well as some non-departmental bodies. There are some limitations to using the Government Funders Database. Information is submitted by departments and local councils retrospectively and in some cases, there have been lengthy delays in the submission of funding information.

European Funding

Figures for Peace, INTERREG and the Northern Ireland European Social Fund (ESF) Programme and Rural Development Programme were provided by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), the ESF Managing Authority, Department of Economy, and DAERA. It was not possible to obtain the figures specifically for the 2017-2018 financial year therefore, an annual average was calculated for the 7 year duration of the programmes.

Lottery Funding

The National Lottery Community Fund data was obtained online from 360 Giving GrantNav.

Public Donations

NICVA undertakes an Individual Giving Survey once a year (see Giving). Information from this research is used to estimate how much funding the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector receives from the general public.

The total amount donated by the public in Northern Ireland in 2015 was calculated using the monthly median donation per head of population. The median is considered a better indicator of average donations than the mean as it is less likely to be skewed upwards by a small number of very large donations. The yearly median donation was calculated and this figure was extrapolated up using the estimated 16+ years adult population in Northern Ireland in 2018 based on NISRA population projections.

Grant Making Trusts

The methodology for this section has changed from previous State of the Sector research. This is largely due to the greater amount of grant funding data that is now published in an open data format. New resources have become available in recent years including the 360 Giving Data Standard. This platform provides support for grant makers to publish their grants data openly, to understand their data and to use the data to create online tools that make grant-making more effective. NICVA extracted funding data from 360 Giving which was awarded to organisations in Northern Ireland.

In addition, NICVA also contacted local grant making trusts directly to get an accurate picture of how much the sector is funded.


The data presented in the Workforce section shows the estimated size and characteristics of the workforce in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland. The Workforce Survey is typically undertaken every two to three years by NICVA. The data used within this section mainly derives from the NICVA’s Workforce Survey 2018 and the NICVA database. As the sample is different from previous workforce surveys, direct comparisons to previous year’s results cannot be made with this current survey.

  • The 2018 survey was distributed to 1,028 NICVA member organisations across the VCSE sector, using an online survey platform and generated a response rate of 23.9% (n=246)
  • The workforce data is based on organisations that employed paid staff
  • The total workforce figure was obtained by calculating the mean average of all paid staff in organisations responding to the Workforce Survey 2018, across income bands. These averages were then weighted against the Register of Charities (Charity Commission for Northern Ireland) to determine an aggregated total workforce figure. The income breakdown of organisations that responded to the Workforce Survey 2018 is displayed below.


The Volunteers section examines aspects of volunteering in the sector. The data presented in this section are derived from a number of sources including the recent State of the Sector Survey.

Additional data are drawn from reports published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and the Department for Social Development which gathered baseline information on volunteering levels throughout Northern Ireland. Data is also drawn from a report published by the VSB Foundation and Volunteer Now on the governance of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.

The total volunteer estimate was calculated using a similar method to that of the total workforce estimate. The average number of volunteers in organisations that involve volunteers was calculated using data from the State of the Sector Survey. The averages were calculated for each of the income bands held within NICVA’s administrative database. The averages were multiplied by the estimated number of organisations within each of the income bands that involve volunteers in their organisation. The estimated number of organisations within each of the income bands was calculated using income data held on the NICVA database for a sample of 2,847 organisations. The spread of these organisations across the income bands was applied to the total organisations figure (6,127). The proportion of organisations within each of income bands that involve volunteers was calculated using data from the SOS Survey.

Future Issues

Data used in the Future Issues section is derived from the Brexit and Absence of Government in Northern Ireland Viewfinder 2018 survey undertaken in late 2018. The viewfinder was disseminated to NICVA member organisations (n=1,019) using online survey software platform between August- September 2018 and achieved a response rate of 16% (n=163).


Data used in the Giving section is drawn mainly from NICVA's Individual Giving Surveys. Each year NICVA gathers information on charitable giving from members of the public in Northern Ireland through the  Individual Giving Survey. Each Individual Giving Survey includes a standard set of questions, alongside questions that cover topical issues which in recent years have included legacies, social media giving and fundraising regulation. Where it is appropriate direct comparisons can be made between surveys.

Cognisense  was commissioned by NICVA to undertake the Individual Giving Survey 2019 through their Cognisense Omnibus Survey, which was distributed between 21 January and 6 February 2019. Data collection was undertaken using a fully representative sample (n=1,006) of the Northern Ireland adult (16+) population in terms of age, sex, socio-economic grouping and area. Fieldwork was undertaken face-to-face across approximately 120 electoral wards in Northern Ireland.

Ipsos MORI  was commissioned by NICVA to distribute the 2016 Individual Giving Survey through their Northern Ireland Omnibus between 27 October and 15 November 2016. The methodology involved a random selection of respondents from a spread of geographical points and quotas were set on age, gender and socio-economic grade. The survey was completed by a sample of 1,025. 

Millward Brown was commissioned by NICVA to undertake the 2015 Survey between 22 September and 9 October 2015. Following an initial random selection of 60 sampling points (spread over approximately 100 electoral wards), a quota sampling methodology was utilised. The final sample was weighted to be representative of the Northern Ireland 16+ year’s population in terms of gender, age, social class and region. The survey was completed by a sample of 1,000


How come funding from the 26 legacy councils is significantly higher that the 2016 State of the Sector resource? 

In the previous State of the Sector NICVA used a combination of resources to gather data on council funding to the sector in the 2013-2014 financial year. The main resource was the Government Funders Database which is a central database where councils publish their funding data. However through this research NICVA found cases of under-reporting by the councils on the database. While NICVA contacted each of the councils directly to gather accurate information only six councils provided additional. On this occassion NICVA did not rely on the Government Funders Database but used freedom of information requests to gather the data at source, the outcome of which is a significant increase in funding being reported.

Why does this State of the Sector report very low levels of ESF Funding compared to previous State of the Sectors?

In previous State of the Sectors ESF funding from the EU Commission and from the Department of Employment Learning (DEL) was displayed as one figure. In this State of the Sector the match funding and contribution provide by DEL was included in direct central government funding to the sector to give a full representation of DEL funding.

Why is the total number of volunteers NICVA report so different to the total number of volunteers published by the Department for Communities?

It should be noted that there are several key differences between DfC's volunteering research and NICVA's research which result in the difference in total volunteers figures. Firstly NICVA's research aims to capture levels and trends in volunteering in the voluntary and community sector only, while DfC's research captures volunteering across all sectors. In addition, NIVCA's volunteering data is captured from organisations whereas DfC's research is captured from individuals. It is therefore reasonable to assume that NICVA's research is more likely to capture formal volunteering only (i.e. giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations) while DfC's research is more likely to capture both formal and informal (i.e. giving unpaid help as an individual to people who are not relatives) volunteering and therefore will arrive at a higher number of total volunteers than NICVA’s research.

How come there is a higher total number of organisations in this State of the Sector compared to the last State of the Sector research (published in 2012)?

Since the publication of the last State of the Sector (2012) the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland has commenced charity registration and is developing a database of all charities in Northern Ireland. The Charity Commission kindly shared their data on registered charities with NICVA which enabled NICVA to update and add to its administrative database. In addition, for the first time NICVA has included faith and religious organisations in the total organisations figure.

Why are there so few references to previous State of the Sector research results in the new web platform?

At NICVA we are constantly looking to improve the way we conduct our research, and we have introduced some new changes in this State of the Sector. Examples of these changes include capitalising on new open data sources to changing the wording of some of our survey questions. A consequence of these methodological changes means it is not always possible to make comparisons to previous research. However we feel that these changes are necessary in order to provide current and useful information on the size, scope and finances of a vibrant and dynamic sector. 

Why has income generating expenditure increased from 3.4% in State of the Sector 2009-2010 to 9.5% in 2013-2014?

Information on the sector’s expenditure was sourced from organisation accounts. Through analysing accounts NICVA was able to determine the percentage of income spent in charitability activity, governance and income generation. There was a noticeable increase from 3.4% in 2009-2010 to 9.5% in 2013-2014 for income generation. It is perhaps not surprising that this figure has increased as organisations are trying to diversify their income sources in order to become more sustainable and thus must invest more income in their fundraising activities.