UK academic research on the Voluntary Sector

I’ve just spent the last couple of days with 140 researchers and policy makers from the voluntary sector and government bodies from the UK and overseas at the NCVO/VSSN Researching the Voluntary Sector Conference. And I can say without any hesitation that I’ve been in geek heaven: I’ve heard perspectives on voluntary organisations and public service delivery (criminal justice, unemployment services), volunteering and social capital, charitable giving, and so on. I’ve learnt about the experience of the sector overseas during previous rounds of cuts. All topped and tailed by two excellent plenary sessions: Martin Brookes on impact measurement, and then a panel on the Big Society. More of these in a future blog.

But a couple of conversations have left me in a pensive mood about the future of the academic research community. For what it’s worth, I think it is currently in better health than it has been in years: we’ve had investment from ESRC, Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Cabinet Office (amongst others) in the two research centres, TSRC and CGAP; we have an excellent new voluntary sector research journal (published by a not-for-profit publisher by the way); and there is a stream of new researchers in disciplines such as economics beavering away at PhDs and bringing new ideas to the sector.

The cloud to my silver lining is twofold. First, that the downsizing of higher education will lead universities to focus on subjects where they have scale or reputation, potentially jettisoning activities or those working in a field that crosses many disciplines. My second concern is that we will lose too many senior academics to early retirement at the same time in the forthcoming rationalisation. It is extremely unlikely that  these staff will be replaced at any level. The latter is important because we are currently (and rightly) investing in a new generation of PhD students who will in future drive the field forward, but without any sort of career path they will not stay around. Those senior academics are wise owls; if they go, we will miss their counsel. Amidst rumours of rationalising research councils (with the inevitable battle between social science and the real sciences) I can’t but help feel a little concerned that we will reverse the progress we have made in building knowledge and capacity.

Where next? Firstly, we have a number of excellent research ‘hubs’ that might be the basis for a rationalised academic infrastructure: Birmingham, Cass Business School, Roehampton, Southampton, Sheffield Hallam to name a few (and yes I know there are more). The loss of LSE’s Centre for Civil Society should remind us not to take these centres for granted. Might now be the time to rekindle discussions from a few years back about more formal collaboration between institutions? This might include more collaboration around syllabus design, or promoting postgraduate courses in one single place.

Secondly, as a sector, if we value academic inquiry into our role and work, then I think we need to make the case for supporting this activity more strongly than we currently do. Martin Brookes made this point specifically in relation to work on measuring impact, but I think it’s broader. Many of the questions facing us – whether about nonprofit management or public policy – can be best answered by the independent, robust and, yes, theoretical work done by many academics. My personal view is that foundations should consider increasing their investment in this work to help address the shortfall from public funding. But I am realistic that this is not the USA.

Thirdly, I think the future should be characterised by a much greater effort to gather, catalogue and synthesise the research we have already produced. This has started to happen: the Institute for Volunteering Research’s evidence base is a great example, whilst I know the British Library have taken an interest. But it is still too difficult to find existing studies. If less money will be available for new work, we will need to get more value from what at times feels like a largely untapped resource.

If you are interested in research about the voluntary sector the best place to start is the Voluntary Sector Studies Network.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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