Third Sector Trends in England and Wales

Third Sector Trends was initiated in 2008 by Northern Rock Foundation in North East England and Cumbria as a longitudinal study to explore the structure and dynamics of the sector in the context of change.  The study now covers the whole of England and Wales

Third Sector Trends study was conceived and originally commissioned by Northern Rock Foundation with research conducted by the universities of Durham, Southampton and Teesside. The Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland was a co-founder of the research and is now responsible for its legacy.  Since 2012, the research programme has been run by Policy&Practice, St Chad’s College, Durham University. Its geographical coverage has expanded, first to the whole of the North of England in 2016 and then to England and Wales in 2019.

The study was established to look at structure, resource, purpose, practice and impact of the Third Sector from an independent and as far as possible, an ‘objective’ point of view. As such, the study collects and analyses quantitative and qualitative data to explore issues of interest to government, local public sector and health organisations, the private sector, grant making foundations, Third Sector infrastructure organisations at national and local levels and, of course, individual TSOs (see list of interested stakeholders in Section 4).

An archive of research reports is available on this website for each phase of the research programme.  Third Sector Trends Publications Archive

All of the reports from the latest iteration of the study in 2022 can also be located here: Third Sector Trends in England and Wales 2022.

The Community Foundation and St Chad’s College have collaborated with many partners over the years to fund core fieldwork and analysis,  including:

  • Barrow Cadbury Trust
  • Charity Bank
  • Garfield Weston Foundation
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Millfield House Foundation
  • Power to Change

Many commissions have also been awarded to undertake further analysis of the Third Sector Trends data by local authorities, health authorities, community foundations, think tanks and so on, as shown below:

  • Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West NHS Integrated Care System
  • Cumberland Council
  • Cumbria Community Foundation
  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Essex Community Foundation
  • Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)
  • Kernow NHS Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Law Family Commission for Civil Society/Pro Bono Economics
  • Lloyds Bank Foundation England and Wales
  • NHS Humber and North Yorkshire Health and Care Partnership
  • NHS South Yorkshire Integrated Care Board
  • NHS West Yorkshire Integrated Care Board
  • North East Local Enterprise Partnership
  • South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority
  • Sport England
  • West Yorkshire Combined Authority
  • Westmorland and Furness Council
  • Yorkshire Sport Foundation

The study has grown in size as it had developed beginning with surveys of 1,000 respondents in 2010 in North East England and Cumbria to over 6,000 responses across England and Wales in 2022. As the approach to analysis of Third Sector Trends data has evolved, it has sought to produce findings which complement rather than replicate the findings of other major long-term studies.

The most important of these is the NCVOs annual UK Civil Society Almanac. Third Sector Trends mirrors some aspects of NCVOs work to ensure that data are comparable. This helps to create more accurate estimates on, for example, numbers of employees and regular volunteers and produces insights on aspects of sector impact.

A key purpose of the study is to fill gaps in knowledge that the Almanac cannot bridge.  Third Sector Trends’ longitudinal focus on attitudinal data drawn from the leaders of organisations helps to explain how the sector responds to ‘unforeseen’ challenges and opportunities created by social, political and economic change produces. In so doing, it strengthens understanding and deepens interpretation of NCVO data.

The study examines how Third Sector organisations (TSOs) with a wide range of characteristics and working in different local contexts fare over time. This is the largest and longest-running study of its kind in the UK.  The study’s ground-breaking research methodology has been developed to flex with current circumstances at each stage of the survey (currently in its sixth iteration).  Detail on the research methodology can be found here:

Third Sector Trends surveys maintain a core set of questions on key issues which never change to ensure that time series data are comparable. But there is room to change about a third of questions to explore new issues in more depth. Often, the focus is led by the interests of funders – here are some examples.

  • In 2023 three inter-related reports on the contribution of the Third Sector to local health and wellbeing were commissioned by NHS Integrated Care Boards and health authorities, local authorities and combined authorities in (ctrl & click to download each report) Cumbria, Yorkshire and Humber and Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
  • In 2023, Essex Community Foundation commissioned a localised report which drew on comparative data with statistical stranger and neighbour areas. Download here
  • In 2022 Kernow NHS Clinical Commissioning Group via VSF Cornwall commissioned a study on the structure and dynamics of the sector in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, this has now led to further evaluation of sector activity via Third Sector Trends in 2022. Download here
  • In 2021 West Yorkshire Combined Authority (together with two regional health and care partnerships) invested in a study to explore the extent of sector capacity and capability to contribute to social and economic wellbeing and estimate the added value produced. Download here
  • In 2021 Pro Bono Economics/Law Family Commission on Civil Society invested in new analysis at a national level from Third Sector Trends to explore the relationship between the private sector and Third Sector. Download here
  • In 2019, Power to Change invested in the development of new questions to examine TSOs perceptions of social and economic impact in localities and also added questions on the types of trading activities of local organisations in a community context. Download here
  • In 2019, Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland invested in new questions on diversity in organisational leadership which led to the production of the first national study at scale on this issue. Download here
  • In 2019, Garfield Weston Foundation/IPPR North invested in new analysis on the social and economic impact of the Third Sector across the North of England, with a special emphasis on the energy produced by regular volunteers. Download here
  • In 2018, Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland invested in new qualitative and quantitative work on the interactions between grant makers and Third Sector organisations involving interviews with 25 national and regional foundations. Download here
  • In 2018, Power to Change invested in a new qualitative study on trading interactions between community businesses and social enterprises in their local context in Bradford and Teesside which led to the development of new survey questions in 2019. Download here
  • In 2016, Joseph Rowntree Foundation invested in the development of new questions to explore the extent to which the Third Sector addresses issues surrounding poverty in local community context. Download here
  • In 2016 Lloyds Bank Foundation England and Wales invited us, on the strength of TSTS work, to evaluate a new capacity building programme. This resulted in the development of new insights on the ‘social process of supporting small charities’. Download here
  • In 2013 Charity Bank invested in new questions on the relationship between organisational practice, capability and assets and their propensity to borrow money or engage in social investment programmes. Download here



All of the reports from the study can be located here: