Voluntary and Community Organisations

Download a PDF of this report here Voluntary and Community Organisations

The majority of the grants we make are to small and micro-organisations, working to support vulnerable people in their local area. These organisations and informal groups know their neighbourhoods and adapt their practice accordingly. They are built on mutuality – the principle of people supporting each other, rather than being fixed in a role of ‘helper’ or ‘helped’. These communities and the organisations within them are comfortable with the idea that individuals cannot and should not be expected to be entirely self-reliant: life is better lived together. They are not afraid to tackle serious social problems, to take risks, and to do things differently. We are proud to be their champion.

The numbers

It is extremely difficult to get reliable figures for the size and structure of the voluntary sector in Devon, as elsewhere. Most sources, unsurprisingly, only count registered charities. Organisations not constituted as charities (usually the smaller, less formal ones) are not required to register anywhere, so are notoriously difficult to count, and therefore to an extent invisible.

NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac gives us a general idea of things. 82% of the voluntary organisations counted by NCVO have an average annual income of less than £100,000, though these organisations represent only 5% of the total annual income of voluntary organisations. The South West region has the highest density of voluntary organisations by population in the country, at 3.2 organisations per 1000 people, 2.58 of which are charities (obviously this figure excludes the smaller, uncounted organisations – see above). More people in the South West are employed in charities as well – over 3% of the working population, compared with a national average of around 2%. The map below shows that the amount of money spent by the large national funders (such as the BIG Lottery) is around mid-range, at £8.27.

Regional grant spending per capita by national funders

As regards Devon-specific data, Devon Voluntary Action (DeVA) produce a sector overview report every two years, based on a combination of information about the organisations on its database, and Charity Commission data. There are significant problems with this data, which show just how hard it is to get good figures on this topic. The database material includes only limited information on Torbay and Plymouth, and the data on Torridge is also likely to be less accurate as DeVA does not cover these areas, whereas the Charity Commission data includes all of these areas.

DeVA has 4600 organisations on its database, while there were 3861 organisations registered with the Charity Commission in 2018. Similar to the national picture, 85% of the charities registered in Devon had incomes of under £100,000, and only 5% of registered charities had incomes over £500,000 (19 have an income of over £10 million). DeVA’s database figures show considerable variation in the density of voluntary activity across the county. West Devon, for example has one of the lowest populations, but the highest density of organisations (with caveats about the accuracy of the data a stated above). Most of these figures are far higher than the NCVO numbers, suggesting a significant under-estimation at national level.

Number of organisations in relation to population size

(source: DeVA)

The chart below gives an idea of the predominant levels of income among registered charities in Devon. Over half have an income of between £5000 and £100,000. DeVA notes that the organisations in the three left-hand columns have since 2006 been ineligible for registration as a charity, therefore it is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of unregistered organisations fall into these smaller categories, meaning that the true profile is likely to involve larger numbers at the lower end of the spectrum.

Income of Registered Charities in Devon

(Source: DeVA)

The table below takes a look at the data available on 360Giving to date for our patch. This is in no way an exhaustive account of all grant-funding in the region, as it records only those funders who publish their data through 360 (and the great majority of this is the large national funders, such as BIG Lottery and Children in Need). However, it is interesting to have an idea of the variations in distribution. Exeter is head and shoulders above everywhere else. East Devon records an even higher number of grants, but a far lower total value.


Total grants on 360Giving

Number of funders

Number of recipient orgs

Total value of grants

Value of grants per capita



















South Hams






Mid Devon






East Devon




£11, 934,938


North Devon






West Devon


















Compare these figures with where Devon Community Foundation’s grant-making has gone, from 2015 to 2018 (excluding grants relating to the Wellbeing Exeter programme):


Population (2017)

Grants 2015-2018

Per 1000 people













South Hams




Mid Devon




East Devon




North Devon




West Devon












More analysis is needed, but it is clear that patterns of grant-making vary considerably from area to area, according to size of funder, and size of organisation. Here is a heat map showing relative levels of DCF funding for as far back as we have information on our database. The problem with this kind of analysis in a rural area is that the postcode to which an organisation is registered, or even the postcode at which most of its activity is carried out, doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the area from which the activity is drawing participants.

DCF grantmaking by value

DCF grantmaking by value, all time. Source: Local Insight

The Value, and The Challenges

Comparatively speaking, Devon’s voluntary organisations are small, local, and numerous. This can mean that they are flexible, with valuable local knowledge, and can be responsive to changing local need. As many of these organisations have no paid staff members (a third of the organisations funded by DCF are entirely volunteer-run), they can be extremely cost-effective as well. A central role for volunteers (ie, citizens) can also mean there is less of a divide between ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ within communities.

Very small organisations might have low overheads, and be largely insulated from reliance on government contracts, but fundraising is a constant challenge, and sustainability an ongoing concern. Much of the kind of work done by such organisations, with very vulnerable people, will continue to be reliant on grantfunding.

In addition, small organisations do run the risk of being isolated, and ‘cold spots’ - areas without organisations (often in more deprived areas) – can lose out. There is therefore in some cases a role for a coordinating body to bring ultra-local and specialist expertise together, sometimes with bodies from other sectors, making them more than the sum of their parts. The case study below of social enterprise umbrella organisation Food Plymouth gives an example of this.

Food Plymouth

Food Plymouth is a multi-sector partnership and network, bringing together over 40 voluntary organisations, social enterprises and public agencies concerned with ensuring equitable access to healthy food for everyone. Its wider network includes over 1000 individual and organisational stakeholders. Food Plymouth was established in 2010 with financial and practical support from the Soil Association, and became a Community Interest Company in 2014 which now forms the ‘backbone’ of the partnership. The organisation employs a 0.2FTE coordinator, but also relies heavily on the unpaid work of a small group of people, especially its board. The lighthouse logo includes the six strands according to which their work is organised.


Regional and National Links

Food Plymouth is actively involved in the Sustainable Food Cities network, which links over 50 locations across the country, and provides a ready supply of examples of good practice. They are also involved with a Southwest regional network of the Food Power initiative, run by the organisation Sustain. These links are especially useful in this context as Plymouth can be quite isolated and therefore insular, with little in common with surrounding areas, and far from other urban centres. In the last year closer links are also being forged with their sister organisation in Exeter.

What is the point of an infrastructure organisation?

Beyond the obvious sharing of information, Food Plymouth’s Director, Ian Smith, suggests a range of areas in which a coordinating organisation of this kind can add value:

*Bringing everyone together, pulling in the same direction, rather than competing, means we can become more than the sum of our parts. See below.

*Acting as an independent recipient of strategic questions, and can provide a response that reflects a variety of perspectives, rather than a single one. Food Plymouth has contributed evidence to national policy forums such as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger’s report ‘Feeding Britain – Food Poverty in the UK’. This kind of activity raises the group’s profile and is also helping Food Plymouth to overcome its relative geographic isolation.

*The ability to draw on this multi-sector range of experience and expertise to solve problems. An example of this is Food Plymouth’s coordination of an alliance including Plymouth Argyll Football Club, churches, catering firms and community organisations, to make a successful bid for citywide work on the Sugar Smart project. Future such bids are planned.

*Bringing convening power to bear on research projects that would be beyond the reach of smaller individual organisations. One example is a report produced jointly between Food Plymouth and a member of the Low Carbon City team at the City Council ‘The Future of Food in Plymouth’, 2014, which fed into the Council’s local plan, and remains a live and referenced document. Food Plymouth has good relationships with academics, and has also facilitated short-term internships and placements for students.

*Filling gaps – either ones which arise ‘naturally’, or stepping in to rescue struggling initiatives. When the organisation Rootways decided they could no longer manage the Always Apples festival, Food Plymouth took this on as a direct delivery project. This fits with their strategic aims of increasing opportunities for raising income through trading (the festival has a small trading component), but also prevented a valued event from folding.

*An independence from any one area of operation/organisation. Over time, Ian as director has less and less to do with on-the-ground delivery, so is able to provide an overview not tethered to individual organisational priorities.

*Improving the integration of food poverty work with strategies to support healthy eating and access to good food. Individual organisations have tended to focus on one or the other, which can lead to stratification along class lines, amongst other things.


One of the main challenges for Food Plymouth has been that of bringing together public, voluntary and private sector organisations, along with social enterprise, in a balanced forum. Historically, the public sector has wielded considerable influence in this field, though with cuts to local government funding this is changing. Done right, this model can produce creative solutions that cut across traditional boundaries, and experiment with new forms of partnership. It is a considerable shift in ways of working for many though, and can result in anxiety or insecurity. Ian suggests members and stakeholders have a range of motivations for being involved. It is no easy job to manage these interests, but as the organisation becomes more established, and gains influence, attitudes may change.

 Funding, sustainability and the future

The social enterprise model has been useful, Ian suggests, to balance the various sectors involved in this area. Having both financial and practical support from the Soil Association meant not only was funding secured for the initial period, but that the fledgling organisation was able operate under the SA’s umbrella, without having to worry about constitutional issues.

It can be difficult to attract funding for infrastructural organisations, especially in preference to organisations doing frontline work, for example on acute food insecurity. Food Plymouth is working on the transition from a grant-funded model to one with a larger enterprise element. It is in the process of establishing a food consultancy practice, operating on a cooperative basis, with 10% of income going towards Food Plymouth’s overheads.

There is recognition that the partnership has done less work on its ‘catering and food procurement’ and ‘diverse and sustainable food economy’ strands than on other aspects, so this will be a focus going forward. This work will likely include new forms of collaboration with Plymouth City Council, which is a cooperative council.

Having already achieved the Sustainable Food City bronze award, Food Plymouth has now set its sights on the Silver award. Part of its plan for achieving this has been a strategic alliance with Public Health through their Thrive programme, whose annual thematic focus from October 2018 is on Connecting People through Food. If successful, Plymouth will be one of only four local authorities in the country with a silver award.


DeVA’s Third Sector Overview of Devon 2018: http://www.devonva.org/UserFiles/File/Voice_and_Influence/Sector_Analysis/DeVA_Final_Report_2018.pdf

NCVO: Civil Society Almanac (published annually): https://data.ncvo.org.uk/a/almanac18/

Tailor Made – How Community Groups Improve People’s Lives. Community Development Foundation, 2014. A series of thematic reports looking at the importance of small, local organisations.

Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, produces many research papers on aspects of civil society, including Below the Radar, on small and micro organisaitons.

360 Giving. Provides a common data standard for the publication of grantmaking data. Includes a search function, GrantNav.


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