What do charities do? Some standard ways of classifying charities.

There are 170,000 charities in England and Wales, but what do they all do, and what is the best way of classifying them? Some questions are too long to answer by tweet, so this is a rapid blog on demand for the wonderful @katherinehudson

The Charity Commission asks all charities what they do when they submit their annual returns. This comes under three headings - What they do, Who they help and how they do it. Each charity must choose at least one in each section, but they can check all that apply.


  • General purposes
  • Medical / health /sickness
  • Relief of poverty
  • Accommodation / housing
  • Arts / Culture
  • Animals
  • Economic / community / development / employment
  • Education / training
  • Disability
  • Overseas aid / famine relief
  • Religious activities
  • Sport / recreation
  • Environment / Conservation / heritage


  • Children / Young people
  • People with disabilities
  • Other charities / voluntary bodies
  • The general public / mankind
  • Elderly / old people
  • People of a particular ethnic or racial origin
  • Other defined groups


  • Makes grants to individuals
  • Provides other finance
  • Provides buildings/facilities / open space
  • Provides advocacy / advice / information
  • Acts as an umbrella or resource body
  • Makes grants to organisations
  • Provides human resources
  • Provides services
  • Sponors or undertakes research
  • Other or none of these.

This approach has its advantages - it is relatively simple, and easy for charity trustees to understand. And all charities in England and Wales are already asked this question so they should be somewhat familiar with the categories.

It also has its drawbacks, because the categories are not designed to be discrete. It also throws up some surprising results - for instance in the "How" section far more organisations tick the "acts as an umbrella or resource body" than even Sir Robin Bogg could hope for.

An alternative classification is the ICNPO (International Classification of Not-for-Profit Organisations). This was developed by academics in the US to provide a standard way of classifying charities around the world.

ICNPO seeks to put charities in 12 discrete categories, with sub categories to capture more detail. The classification is supposed to be based on their main area of economic activity - that is the charitable purpose they spend the largest proportion on. David Kane's ICNPO classification of all the charities on the UK registerhas been published as a free resource by the NCVO.

The broad categories are:

  1. Culture and recreation
  2. Education and research
  3. Health
  4. Social services
  5. Environment (includes animal welfare)
  6. Development and housing
  7. Law, advocacy and politics (the UK is rare in not counting politics as a charitable activitiy)
  8. Philanthropic intermediaries and voluntarism promotion
  9. International
  10. Religion
  11. Business and Professional Unions
  12. Not elsewhere classified

There is a table in your NCVO Almanac (available in all good NCVO Bookshops), or from this top secret page on the NCVO website which gives a break down of how many charities there are in each category, and other details like income etc.

Some of the strengths of ICNPO are also weaknesses - because it is an international system it does not always reflect the functions of charities in the UK, and ideally you need both a good understanding of the ICNPO classification system, and what the charity does in order to make sense of it. And survey respondents are unlikely to want to wade through the 26 page PDF explaining the classification. For instance the "social services" category is broad and "social services" has a more specific meaning in the UK. Large sections of the UK charity sector fall into this category that would perhaps tick "not elsewhere classified" or "culture and recreation" e.g youth groups such as the scouts.

If (which as I suspect) this is for a survey question, other possible alternatives include the NSTSO - the National Survey of Third Sector Organisations, which our Conservative overlords decided to rebrand the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises without thinking too hard about how this will change which organisations respond. But what do they know about social science - they all did PPE at Oxford ;-)

This pdf contains the national results of the NSTSO / NSCSE and also details the questions that they use. They asked the respondents to tick all that apply, and then again to tick up to three main areas of activitiy.

My feeling is that it doesn't matter too much which method you choose - they all have their flaws, but that it is better to choose an existing question than to invent some new categories - this allows you to compare any data collected / classified to other sources - such as NCVO Almanac data, analysis of the CC register, or the NSTSO.

Of course, a slightly subversive alternative if you are just surveying registered charities would be just to ask for the registered charity number - then you could use ICNPO or the Charity Commission Register data to classify charities by income / these classifications without actually having to ask the question. However, survey respondents may expect to be asked this sort of question.

disclosure: in writing this blog post I may have stolen time paid for by Eric Pickles


Thank you thank you thank you!
Fits my sense that there isn't one clear and easy answer.

The thing I find most interesting about the 13 types listed under the 2006 Charities Act (different in order to your Charity Commission list) is that the number one purpose is relief of poverty - all relating back to the beginning of it all under Elizabeth I - so always worth noting that these divides are to a certain extent arbitrary and historical (and, as you note, culturally loaded)

Thanks again Pete


Ps Explanation - not for a survey - I've just been comparing the categories we use to define our membership (historical and as such broad and overlapping) to these main two systems and couldn't decide which was best.

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