The director of the Third Sector Research Centre weighs up an uncertain future
It's more than four years since the Third Sector Research Centre was set up to provide reliable independent evidence that could be used to help the government formulate its policies on charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.
Since then its director, Professor Peter Alcock of Birmingham University, thinks that he and his colleagues at Southampton and Middlesex universities have been "fairly successful" in responding to the task. They have produced more than 80 research papers and worked on subjects such as impact measurement, volunteering and the micro-mapping of voluntary organisations.
But in August next year comes the review of the centre's five-year funding, of which £5m comes from the Economic and Social Research Council, £5m from the Office for Civil Society and £250,000 from the Barrow Cadbury Trust. And Alcock says the prospects of more funding from the OCS are not good.
"The future is uncertain," he says.
"I hope we will keep going, but it's likely that we will be smaller and probably more reliant on evaluation research and contract work put out to tender.
"If we lose our core funding, we will probably lose our basic data gathering - such as collecting and cleaning up Charity Commission data for a longitudinal study and a project called Real Times, which looks at the organisational dynamics of 15 sector organisations.
"It would be a significant loss and not something we could regulate. Contract funders won't commission that kind of work. So our main concern is to retain core funding for our basic data work, because we can do more with that and eventually it will become open access."
So there is clearly a cloud over Alcock's ambition for the centre to become "the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the third sector, so that journalists and others can ask us about the evidence and data on a given subject".
But he's sanguine about how the situation has come about. Nobody foresaw the far-reaching economic and political changes that were imminent when the centre was set up, he says, and the upside was that he and his colleagues were able to research and describe those changes as they happened.
"The disadvantage was that the squeeze on both the sector and the policymakers with whom we work has been significant," he says. "This has changed their capacity to handle research and respond to some of the issues that have come up - and, to some extent, their willingness to base policymaking on research evidence.
"It's not a political criticism of this government. The economic pressures it is under make it less inclined to invest long term in this kind of work. And it is looking in particular for quick deliverables for improving volunteering levels and encouraging young people to volunteer.
"It's not the case that the government is less inclined to base policy on research. It's more that some policies, such as the National Citizen Service and the Community Organisers programme, were commitments made in the Conservative manifesto. And to be fair, those weren't based on the kind of research evidence we'd been producing."
While the centre waits to hear about OCS funding and prepares a fresh application to the ESRC, it is busy on one of its most ambitious projects so far - a series of dialogues on the sector that will draw on the views of the Third Sector Futures Sounding Board, a group of experts assembled by the centre.
The dialogues will explore funding, contracting, marketisation, the value of the sector to society and the tensions between paid and unpaid work. Each will start with a discussion paper to stimulate an online debate; then the sounding board will continue the discussion and a report will be produced.
The first discussion paper, The Worst of Times?, was discussed by the sounding board last week. Alcock is reluctant to pre-empt its conclusions with his own opinions. "But an important message - especially to the harbingers of despair - is that there is general support across the political parties for the sector and its role," he says.
"To conclude that it is the worst of times is to underplay the strength of the sector, overplay the role of government and ignore the lessons of history. The sector has always survived crises and political changes."
Alcock says policymakers should remember that the diversity of the sector also brings unreliability - the fact that there are great community organisations in one area doesn't mean they exist everywhere.
"That's why you can't assume that the public sector can walk away and the third sector can fill in," he says. "The sector's diversity is both its strength and its weakness."