The importance of voluntary sector research

Dan Corry is Chief Executive of charity think tank and consultancy NPC, following a varied career in public policy and economics. He was a member of the ESRC’s Research Committee until September 2016.


I have recently finished a four-year stint as a member of the ESRC Research Committee. Although much of the time my skills as an economist and former policymaker were the most useful in helping the work of the committee, I was really there to try and represent the voluntary sector and see if we could get more research about the way civil society works funded, carried out and communicated.

In this I can only be held to have failed. In my time on the committee, funding ended for the two major voluntary sector focused research centres, the Third Sector Research Centre based originally at Southampton and Birmingham and the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy based at CASS. WISERD in Wales picked up some funding, but despite doing some interesting work it is very much a Wales-focused centre and is less about how the British voluntary sector operates today and more about many diverse aspects of civil society.

Equally, and despite managing to get steers towards the voluntary sector in a number of calls for research, very little funding of work with a voluntary sector angle came through. True the ESRC does fund some work that the charity sector membership organisation NCVO do (and they sounded suitably grateful in a recent blog) and a few other bits and pieces, but this surely is not good enough.

What are my reflections on why we are getting nowhere on funding social science research into this important part of the society and economy, a sector that seems even more important as our society seems to be splitting apart in the face of austerity, the Brexit vote and so on?

First, is the youth of the topic and its lack of recognition as a proper academic discipline. The net result of this is that the academics working in it are often not able to compete for pots of money with others who have longer and more glittering sets of publications in the most eminent journals on their CVs. Peer review and the way the ESRC works must give pre-eminence to academic excellence. But when it leads to neglect of research in an important sector that is a real problem.

The sector also lacks it own high-status journals. In the absence of this, I always hoped that we could persuade top academics to use their expertise to look at civil society issues. So labour market economists could look at turnover and productivity in the voluntary sector workforce not just the private and public sectors – and publish them in the economics journals; or geographers could look at the issue of agglomeration benefits and dis-benefits in the case of charities not just private sector high tech clusters. It never happened.

Second, I think that the study of philanthropy and of the UK charity sector is inevitably pretty interdisciplinary. That causes problems for the way funding is allocated. Despite lots of talk of doing more in this area – indeed leading to the creation of UKRI – and lots of ‘sandpits’ and other devices  to promote collaboration and funding of work across disciplines – the system finds it easier to assess and fund work within a discipline.

Third, in my experience many social scientists seem to be happier investigating social movements in various countries than getting to grips with the reality of the voluntary sector in the UK. There is a case for both kinds of research of course but the bread and butter of being able to answer questions about how things are working, whether big charities are growing relative to smaller ones, what is happening to funding flows, who is volunteering and what impact it has on them and so on is not seen as ‘high’ social science.

There are honourable exceptions where good social scientists have tried to investigate big questions – like the economists who have tried to understand what influences giving in the UK (for example Kimberly Scharf at Warwick). As in all areas of policy there is an issue over the availability and integrity of data – but it was disappointing that as the Administrative Data Research Network was created the hoped-for voluntary sector strand never really emerged.

Meanwhile it is left to small organisations like my own, to try and push on for things like using government administrative data to help charities understand their impact (for example through the Justice Data Lab now run by the Ministry of Justice and other impact data labs).

What then is to be done? I am sure that the voluntary sector is not the only area that feels it does not get the support it should from the ESRC and clearly not everything can be funded. Charitable funders and large charities could be encouraged to  invest in more research and build closer links with organisations like the ESRC – the way both JRF and NSPCC have done recently. And the ESRC could create a strong advisory group on this including serious players from the sector itself.

But if the reasons discussed above mean there will be remain a systematic bias against funding work in this area then maybe the next person to represent the sector on the Research Committee should be more bolshie than I was and ask for some money to be specifically earmarked for voluntary sector research.

You can follow @DanRCorry on Twitter

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