Evidence-based policy: Using the UK Civil Society Almanac

The mantra, ‘evidence-based policy’, is one that policy professionals live by. Or at least they should. But robust data – either quantitative or qualitative – is expensive to produce regardless of whether you commission the work out, or do it yourself.

This is why NCVO’s UK Civil Society Almanac is such a useful resource for people working in voluntary and community sector policy who want to understand the shape of the sector and how it is evolving over time.

How I use the Almanac data

In my role as the senior policy officer at Charity Finance Group (CFG,) I use the Almanac data on a regular basis – here are two recent examples.

1. Responses to government decisions

CFG has been leading the sector’s response to the Apprenticeship Levy. The voluntary sector has been overlooked in the design and implementation of the government’s skills agenda – including the levy .

Part of my role in ensuring that the levy works for charities requires me to demonstrate to BIS Officials and the Minister for Skills that the sector is a major contributor to the British economy and a significant employer.

The Almanac data provides this detail to enable me to do this – it shows that the sector has a Gross Value Added of £12.2 billion (comparable to the agricultural industry), and employs 827,000 people.

2. Strengthening campaigns

CFG is a partner in the Grants for Good campaign, headed by Directory of Social Change. The campaign’s aim is to reverse the trend of government funding predominately being provided to charities by contracts back towards grant funding.

The members of this campaign, including CFG, had all been told by their members and supporters that charities are finding it increasingly difficult to secure grant funding. However, without evidence of this our message as a campaign would be much weaker.

The Almanac shows that there has been a decline in grant funding over time. Whilst there seems to have been a slight increase in grants over time in the 2016 edition of the Almanac, the data also shows that, overall, smaller charities continue to see a fall in government funding. This is because charities struggle to bid for large contracts and are unable to manage the default payment by results model.

The Almanac data therefore provides us with evidence of the problem that Grants for Good has identified and will also help us measure whether our campaign has been successful over time.

Is there any room for improvement?

As a disclaimer – I am a qualitative researcher by training and conviction. This means that whilst I acknowledge the need for and value of quantitative data, there is only so much we can infer before we need qualitative research to help us understand the trends.

So I would like to see the Almanac increasingly accompanied by in-depth qualitative work that will draw out the nuances that the data provides, as they did for a recent report on small and medium-sized charities, using the text narrative from charities’ accounts.

For example, the Almanac shows that of the 827,000 people that are employed in the sector 66% are women. That’s 547,000 women to 270,000 men. We often infer from this that the sector is a good place to work for women.

This may well be true. However, what this data doesn’t show is that women are poorly represented in senior positions in the sector, specifically in finance director and chief executive roles.

The Almanac data by itself does not highlight that there are barriers to women’s career progression in the sector, or give us details of what this might be.

This does not mean that NCVO has to carry out new qualitative research – it could be as simple as highlighting existing research and placing the quantitative data in context. For example, carrying on the theme of women working in the voluntary sector, A recent PhD thesis by Bridget Lockyer investigated why women working within this sector have ‘chosen’ to work in the sector, what they are motivated by and how the culture of charity work may be changing.

This kind of research could easily be used to place the wealth of quantitative evidence the Almanac provides into context and in turn allow those of us working in charity sector policy to develop a truly evidence-based policy agenda that works for the sector.


Watch NCVO’s recent webinar presenting the latest data from the Almanac 2016.


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Anjelica worked at NCVO researching the effects of welfare reforms on communities across England for NCVO. She is now senior policy officer at Charity Finance Group.

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