How research helps the voluntary sector make an even bigger difference

Nick Ockenden is head of research at the NCVO (the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) which champions the voluntary sector and volunteering. Its vision is a society where we can all make a difference to the causes that we believe in.
Here, Nick writes about NCVO’s relationship with ESRC, and why research into the voluntary sector is at its most crucial point ever. 

Nick Ockenden NCVO 150px

Things can feel pretty tough for many voluntary sector organisations. We’ve been through the fundraising crisis sparked by the tragic death of Olive Cooke, it’s as hard as it’s ever been to secure income, and the need for the sector’s services is arguably growing. At such a time research can feel a luxury when in fact it is more crucial than ever.

Despite being told that the public are sick of experts, it remains a core aim of NCVO to help charities inform their policy and practice work with research-based evidence, and help them make an even bigger difference.

We could do this on our own but we’d always be limited in what we can achieve for our members and the sector. We have much more impact by working with others, and our relationship with the ESRC, going back many years, is a great example of this. But given our position at the heart of the voluntary sector, the story of our relationship with the ESRC is really a story of the ESRC’s relationship with the voluntary sector.

Making the most of secondary data

As a sector we spend far too long generating new research rather than making the most of hugely valuable secondary data.
When the ESRC funded NCVO and the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) as part of the Civil Society Data Partnerships (CSDP) programme we could collate a huge amount of existing funding data on the sector into a format that organisations could readily use.

We’re currently creating major new datasets using information from the Big Lottery Fund, local authorities, and clinical commissioning groups, which organisations will be able to use to inform funding decisions and strategic investments.

ncvo almanacOur UK Civil Society Almanac, which we’ve been producing annually since the mid-1990s, is another example of our work that relies on secondary data.
This publication brings together trend data on what’s happening to the income and expenditure of charities, their assets, volunteering levels and a whole lot more, using accounts filed to the Charity Commission.
The ESRC’s three-year investment in NCVO and the TSRC has provided crucial, long-term support for its production as well as allowing additional analysis which has meant that the sector can make the most of existing financial data.

Making sure the research gets out there

One of the key aims of research at NCVO is to make the incomprehensible meaningful.
My team spend a lot of time working on incredibly complex datasets to distil down key messages that organisations – mostly non-researchers – can use to inform what they do on the ground. We’re always looking for new ways to communicate and discuss these findings and our summary reports, data visualisations, and web resources have been hugely popular.
If we’re to overcome the scepticism of experts, research engagement and dialogue between researchers and users is crucial and the ESRC has allowed us to greatly build our work in this area.

The ESRC’s funding for the development of our Almanac has directly allowed us to try new ways of engaging audiences with this data. A hugely exciting output of the first year of this funding was our animated video we produced of its main findings. It’s been incredibly well-received and has opened up the data to countless new people, and we’re planning more of the same for next year.

Supporting the next generation of researchers

The UK is lucky enough to have a hugely strong research community working on the voluntary sector and volunteering. But like any field, some of the longest serving members inevitably retire or change careers and we’ve always been keen to ensure that the community stays as healthy as possible.

For the past 20 years NCVO and Voluntary Sector Studies Network have been running the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research conference, every September. As part of this we organise the ‘new researchers’ strand, which provides a platform for newly qualified researchers or career-changers to showcase their work.
Generally, they move on to the main conference the following year and many have developed a lifelong career researching the field.
New researchers are, however, also often cash-strapped individuals as they come to the end of their PhD or enter the sector in more junior roles. So the ESRC’s funding of travel bursaries for individuals to attend made a huge difference to people’s ability to attend, and ultimately and hopefully, to develop a career in voluntary sector research.

Sharing knowledge and learning

This remains one of the most significant ways in which the ESRC has supported NCVO and the sector. The ESRC is uniquely placed to act as a node between the worlds of academia, policy, and practice, and can therefore support these audiences – which often remain disconnected – to come together.

We have a long history of running seminar series with the support and funding of the ESRC. Together we’ve covered topics such as social capital (run with Understanding Society), charitable giving, and volunteering. In each case, the event – and the brand of ESRC and NCVO working together – has attracted the highest quality speakers and an incredibly diverse range of attendees from the smallest to largest voluntary organisations alongside leading academics. The exchange of ideas and learning at these events has been fantastic and hugely enjoyable.

The ESRC has done a huge amount to connect researchers – particularly academics – with the users of the research in the sector.  Its work has helped ensure researchers are working on issues that are relevant to voluntary sector organisations, it has enabled and encouraged access to important and ground-breaking research, and it responded to our calls to establish what became the TSRC and the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy (CGAP), working with the Cabinet Office and the Barrow Cadbury Trust to do so. In short, through its work with NCVO and other organisations throughout the sector, it’s enormously enhanced what the sector can do and the impact it can have.

I mentioned at the start of this blog that our relationship with the ESRC goes back many years. But until I stumbled across a paragraph in a publication entitled National Council for Voluntary Organisations from 1919 to 1993 by Kay Coles, I hadn’t quite appreciated how deep rooted this was:

‘In 1963 the government set up a committee with Lord Hayworth, president of NCSS [the earlier name of NCVO], as chairman, to look into research into the social sciences. NCSS drew attention to the fact that it had sponsored, or was engaged, with seven major projects in the past six years for which it had secured financial aid of more than £60,000, but lack of resources had limited work in this field. It pleaded that a Social Science Research Council should be set up. This was accepted by government.’ (p.17-18)

As we move forwards in a post-Brexit Britain which feels both more uncertain and increasingly sceptical of evidence than it did, we look forward to working with the ESRC in making the case for evidence and informing the debates to come about how the UK faces up to future challenges.

One thought on “How research helps the voluntary sector make an even bigger difference

  1. Pingback: The importance of voluntary sector research | ESRC blog

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