In 2018, Cornwall Voluntary Sector Forum carried out research into The State of the VCSE sector in Cornwall.

The report, commissioned by Cornwall Council, revisited the 2013 research and looked at changes to the sector in the last five years, the potential impact that the lead up and the post Brexit period will have on VCSE workforce and services, the landscape currently affecting the sector and best practice examples of public sector and VCSE working together.

The headline findings include:

Size, vibrancy and breadth of the sector

The VCSE sector is a major employer in the county with over 20,000 employees, who tackle the full range of social, economic and environmental issues being faced across the county, with passion and enthusiasm.

Increased demand for VCSE services in last five years

75% of VCSE organisations surveyed reported an increased demand for their services, often provided where others could not deliver.
In terms of volunteers, 80% said they have more or the same number of volunteers as five years ago, all fully committed to what they do.

Adapting and innovating in challenging circumstances

Having faced austerity, demographic, health and environmental changes, VCSE organisations have adapted with innovative and timely support. Despite two fifths of organisations reporting a worse level of reserves than five years ago (21% have less than 3 months operating costs, 42% have 3-6 months operating costs), many have demonstrated resilience and dedication.

Sector changes: mergers and new entrants

Two significant changes to the sector were identified; firstly, “hollowing out”, with increased grass roots activity, while medium sized organisations were merging into larger ones. Alongside this, a degree of renewal in the sector was seen as 11% of VCSE organisations were ‘new’ (not existing 5 years ago).

Social action (local community) – under the radar

It was noted that a huge amount of the sector’s key work is done at a very local level, by community groups and individuals, and this is often overlooked. It is not yet clear how best to tap into this resource without imposing on it, but it is vital that it is part of future joint efforts to develop the sector. Key to this would be an enhanced role for Cornwall Council locality teams, liaising with VCSE Community Makers and other outreach staff

Need for Collaboration

The VCSE can and does access funding and resources that the public sector cannot. To fully harness the potential of social action to address the changes and challenges faced within Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, VCSE and public sector organisations need to improve collaboration and joint working.



A number of calls to action for the VCSE sector have been suggested which include combining all infrastructure activities into one organisation to include representation, communication, brokerage and advocacy, capacity building and volunteer support and delivery of small grant function for community groups. This organisation will provide clear leadership for the sector making a positive offer, providing a forum for chairs or trustees to meet, support the development of a Single Point of Contact (SPOC),  demonstrating that “We’re in this together for the long-term”

Calls to action for the public sector and VCSE include:

  • Improving VCSE infrastructure support, made available in a coordinated and coherent manner with more emphasis to the social value act and local procurement.
  • Support greater coordination between the public and VCSE sectors, focusing on greater levels of co-production, improved balance between formal and informal commissioning processes and joint working at a strategic and local community level.


Richard Williams, Chairman of Cornwall Voluntary Sector Forum explains the role he hopes the organisation will take following the findings of the research,

“The Voluntary Sector Forum has recently entered into a contract with Cornwall Council to develop an independent organisation to inform, represent and support the voluntary sector. The State of the Sector report both demonstrates the need for such an arrangement and the challenges the Forum will confront in its development. We will use the report and its accompanying documents as a monitoring tool over the next two years, particularly focusing on how the Forum can contribute to enhancing social action/value within communities throughout Cornwall.”


Part of the research looked into the shared characteristics of successful collaboration elsewhere in the UK. The National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) recommended three areas where the relationship between the VCSE and the public sector was felt to be sustainable and effective at delivering good outcomes. These were Greater Manchester, the City of Liverpool and Sefton Borough. None of these areas are directly comparable with Cornwall, but it was found that all three combine all the components of infrastructure support within one organisation, namely:

  • Representation, communication, brokerage and advocacy – bringing people together
  • Volunteer support and social action – matching individuals with organisations
  • Capacity building – support for individual organisations
  • Small grants – financial support for community groups


The impact of Brexit and loss of EU funding on the VCSE in Cornwall is unknown and so at the time of the survey, most participants felt that it was impossible to give a considered opinion on the impact, without knowing what form Brexit would take. The potential impact of the loss of EU funding was the primary concern, leading to job losses in the VCSE and public sector, reduction of services especially in training and skills, with some speculating that it could lead to social unrest or result in another recession.

The full 2019 State of the VCSE sector in Cornwall report can be read here, and the accompanying 50 page document can be viewed here.


The report was carried out by Ian Smith (Associate, Cornwall VSF), Nigel Tremlett (Transform Consulting), Lydia Billson (Associate, Cornwall VSF) and Richard Williams (Chair, Cornwall VSF).