The role of charities and volunteers in levelling up

Addressing inequality and promoting equality are at the heart of what charities and volunteers do. This makes them crucial partners for levelling up.

This section outlines the important role of charities and volunteers across the four areas of the levelling up agenda.

1. Improving opportunity

Everyone should have the opportunity and support they need to learn, work and participate in society. This is about creating good-quality and sustainable work and learning opportunities, so people can achieve their ambitions and lead a fulfilling life. For this to reduce inequality, we need to remove the discriminatory barriers that stop many people from benefiting from such opportunities.

Opportunities for learning and education

Charities have a vital role to play in supporting education. There are several examples of charities that work to close attainment gaps, such as Children’s University, The Sutton Trust and Number Champions. Student unions support students to thrive in further and higher education. Many charities focus on early intervention, to ensure that children have what they need to succeed in education. For example, the National Portage Association, provides a home-visiting educational service for pre-school Disabled children.

Opportunities for work and volunteering

Charities create, and often campaign for, inclusive employment. National charities like Shaw Trust provide employability support, but regional and local charities also have a key role to play. For example, International Community Organisation of Sunderland supports the BAME population across Sunderland. Refugees & Mentors, based in Manchester, supports refugees, migrants and asylum seekers into work. Inclusion London, an organisation led by Deaf and Disabled people, has trialled innovative employment support for Disabled people using a rights-based, social model approach.[1] Uptake of apprenticeships is low, and charities could play a significant role in making these opportunities inclusive and accessible.

A number of conditions are essential to help people access work and thrive, from childcare and social care, to housing and transport. Gingerbread campaigns for affordable childcare for single-parent families. Transport for All campaigns for inclusive transport in London so Disabled people can, for example, get to work and access education. Organisations like SPECTRUM help Disabled people access social care, which can be vital for them or their family members to be able to work. Charities support people experiencing homelessness into stable housing, so they can start to access education and employment. Housing Associations, such as Habinteg, lead the way in developing accessible housing for Disabled and older people. Community land trusts, such as Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, provide affordable housing for communities.

Volunteering can provide a wide range of benefits to the volunteer, from increasing confidence to building skills and growing social networks. Thirty-four per cent of volunteers aged 16-19, 22% of those aged 20-29 and 10% of those aged 30-39 report that volunteering helped them to get their first job.[2] Good-quality, properly-resourced volunteering opportunities can be beneficial to people who are unemployed, alongside other measures like inclusive work opportunities and recruitment practices.

2. Local and regional economic policy

A vibrant and healthy local economy is a key driver in improving the lives of individuals, families and communities. Economic policy should aim to improve wellbeing, rather than purely focus on productivity.[3]

Charities support this aim in a number of ways.

  • Charities contribute directly and indirectly to the UK economy. Measured in purely financial terms, the voluntary sector in the UK is worth around £18.2 billion.[4] If its social impact is included, the sector’s contribution to the economy is 10 times as much. This means it is worth an estimated £200 billion, or 10% of the UK's gross domestic product.[5]

  • Charities run initiatives that grow local economies and meet social and environmental objectives. Groundwork runs initiatives to support young people into work, while also improving the local area and reducing waste. RideWise offers job seekers reconditioned bikes and trains unemployed people to become cycling instructors.

  • Charities use their deep knowledge and community connection to influence decision making. Charities support, employ and engage people who are not well served by local or regional economies. They can help to ensure local decision makers consider people who are often unheard. Local voluntary infrastructure organisations (such as councils for voluntary service) play a crucial role in supporting charities and communities to participate in decision making. Equality organisations such as African Educational Cultural Health Organisation in Merton or the Bristol Disability Equality Forum can also ensure local decision making reduces inequality and meets local needs.

  • Charities operating locally create and support local jobs. The sector employs around 3% of the UK workforce[6] – more than the five biggest supermarkets combined. Charities help people develop the skills and confidence they need to move into work, alongside providing supportive work placements.

  • Charities provide wrap-around infrastructure. If a company creates local opportunities in an area with low employment, charities support the wider infrastructure needed to access these opportunities. This can include skills, housing, in-work benefits, and access to childcare and social care. Organisations like ShopMobility and community transport organisations do vital work to ensure people can access and contribute to the local economy. Without charities, businesses and consumers are held back.

  • Charities circulate wealth through local supply chains. Charities generate local wealth in a variety of ways, such as through social enterprise, bringing in money from trusts and foundations, and working with local businesses[7]. Research by Locality has found that every £1 of income generated by the Halifax Opportunities Trust contract for the Jubilee Children’s Centre creates £2.43 for the local economy.[8] Similarly, Bradford Trident creates £2.52 for the local economy for every £1 it receives.

  • Charities can support the creation of green jobs. Research supported by environmental charities estimates that local environmental improvements could create around 16,000 jobs, generating around £4.60 for every £1 invested in peatland and £2.80 in woodland.[9] We know that climate change is a key cross-government priority as the UK chairs the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26).

3. Improving public services

Well-designed and resourced public services are essential to improve equality within and between communities. A focus on improving outcomes and experiences is welcome, to ensure services have a lasting impact. Charities and volunteers have long played a role in designing and delivering public services.

Charities bring a number of strengths to public service delivery.

  • With the right conditions, charities take a collaborative and person-centred approach to service delivery. The Plymouth Alliance model shows how local charities and local government can work in partnership to deliver holistic, value-for-money services that focus on the needs and strengths of people who use them.

  • They improve service delivery by investing any surplus income into improving delivery, and testing new approaches. Civil society organisations such as Equal Care Co-op and Community Catalysts are trialling new approaches to delivering social care.

Beyond delivery of public services on behalf of the government, charities have a crucial role to play.

  • Charities influence the design of public services. Charities have a good understanding of the issues affecting communities and the services available to meet their needs. Groups like the Health and Wellbeing Alliance, funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and NHS England and Improvement, bring charities together to ensure government policy and service design address health inequality. The Prison Reform Trust runs the Prisoners Policy Network to help current and former prisoners influence decisions that will affect their lives.

  • Charities use their specialist expertise to improve mainstream public services. A small charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers offers counselling for people who have experienced trauma. It also offers training for public services staff to improve their service in a range of settings, from job centres to midwifery services.

  • Charities provide essential support that is not funded by the government. For example, Guide Dogs provides mobility training in areas where it is not funded. Headway supports people who have experienced brain injury and offers grants to people who cannot afford their services. Local charities provide support that is universal, catching people who are not eligible for, or accessing, other services.[10] This is a particular issue in deprived areas where there is lack of government funding for services along with high demand.

Volunteers play various roles in public services, from magistrates and special constables to hospital volunteers. Volunteers can provide additional capacity, especially during a crisis. St John Ambulance works with the NHS to provide volunteers to meet winter pressures, planning in partnership early for the coming year.

We have seen during the covid-19 pandemic how vital volunteers have been to support the NHS testing and vaccination programmes. Volunteers can also break down barriers between services and communities, and build trust with people who are distrustful of services. For example, peer support models such as Maternity Mates support disadvantaged pregnant people to access public services.

4. Community life and pride

Charities and volunteers not only provide essential support for communities – they are at the heart of how people want to live their lives. They give people a way to shape their community, express their interests or take action on the issues they care about. Building community and participation is essential to improve quality of life for all.

  • Charities and volunteering offer a way for people to shape and feel proud of where they live. Local councils of voluntary service and community hubs help people make a difference locally. Charities and volunteering, even when coming together in difficult circumstances, provide a way for people to feel pride in the response that they are part of. Since the start of the pandemic, people believe their local communities are more united, with the vast majority saying that they would like our society to be closer and more connected in the future[11].

  • Community groups and charities provide the mechanism for connection and social cohesion. Ageing Without Children York is a volunteer-run group that supports older people without children. Organisations led by the people they serve build capacity and resilience in their communities. One example is Recovery Connections, a charity led by and supporting people with experience of substance misuse. Charities bring people with different experiences together, such as intergenerational projects to connect young people who need to build confidence, with older people who want to develop digital skills. Scouts are expanding their reach into areas of deprivation, and youth social action is shown to boost social cohesion and integration.

  • Charities improve people’s quality of life and ensure inclusion. Stay Up Late run Gig Buddies, a project that matches people with and without learning disabilities to go out and have a good time. Bethany Community Foodbank is a food bank that also helps people find work and provides somewhere to stay. Spring Bank Community Association Hull offers support to older people, particularly to tackle digital exclusion. Youth charities provide young people with safe spaces, supporting them to build skills and confidence, and engage in wider services such as education and training.

  • Charities invest in the communities for the long term. Small, local charities are deeply embedded in their communities and form lasting relationships[12]. Community foundations, such as Devon Community Foundation, play a vital role in understanding the needs of the local community, and providing targeted funds to address those needs.