The Third Sector Research Centre sounds like a grand institution, but a visit to the office of its deputy director, Professor John Mohan, soon changes that impression.
Mohan has a small, spartanly furnished room in the University of Southampton. On one side is a car park; on the other is a building that was recently destroyed when some gas canisters exploded.
"You would not describe this place as an ivory tower," he says. "But if the only people who know about what we're doing are a few academics and social scientists in other countries, we would not regard that as a success."
The centre's latest research paper, Mapping the Big Society, is likely to appeal to a broader audience. It analyses the distribution of voluntary organisations, identifies which people make the biggest contribution to civil life and considers the effects of spending cuts.
Three researchers have spent two years on the project as part of the centre's remit to strengthen the use of evidence to underpin voluntary sector policy.
The findings, which are based on data from several large surveys, challenge some of the key thinking behind the big society.
Using statistics from the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises, a £1.5m study of more than 40,000 third sector organisations carried out by Ipsos Mori in 2008 and 2010 on behalf of the Office for Civil Society, researchers found that more than 40 per cent of organisations operate at a neighbourhood level.
Emphasis on localism
Because of the emphasis on localism in the big society, Mohan's team analysed the characteristics of these organisations and identified a "civic core" of people who contribute a disproportionate amount of time and money to their communities.
The core consists of 31 per cent of the population who provide 87 per cent of voluntary hours and 79 per cent of charitable giving.
Those in this core are more likely to be middle-aged, well educated, homeowners, religious and based in prosperous areas.
That so much is given by so few has implications for localism, says Mohan. "Present policies are about engaging people in their local communities," he says. "That might be great for prosperous communities where people have time and money, but it will be a darn sight harder to get the same engagement where there are high levels of poverty."
He says it might be better to take a city-wide approach rather than rely on the inward focus of existing big society schemes, such as Your Square Mile, so the benefits of the civic core's altruism are felt more widely.
The report also raises concerns about volunteering. Analysis of data from the British Household Panel Survey, which has tracked 10,000 people since the 1990s, found evidence of "shrinkage of participation".
Mohan says: "We think that recent generations are not engaged in activities similar to those older generations were doing at the same age. This suggests we will have to work harder to get them engaged."
Another key finding is that richer and poorer areas receive similar amounts of public money. More funds are targeted at poorer areas, but richer areas are more successful at bidding. Mohan says the extent and speed of recent government spending cuts could leave poorer areas particularly exposed. He says there are also uncertainties about the targeting of programmes created to alleviate the impact of cuts, such as the Transition Fund.
The Third Sector Research Centre, which was created in 2008 with £9m from the Economic & Social Research Council, the OCS and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, will have less data to crunch in future. The government has ended the biennial Citizenship Survey and is considering halting the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises.
Mohan thinks the surveys could have been conducted less frequently to save costs, but says they still contain lots of unexplored material. The British Household Panel Survey is being extended to 100,000 people and the centre is doing more of its own research, partly with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
But doubts remain about the long-term future of the centre, which is a collaborative venture between the universities of Southampton and Birmingham, with contributions from the universities of Middlesex and Kent. It employs 15 researchers.
Its funding expires in August 2013. Staff are thinking of new income sources and hope existing funders continue their support. "It would be good to have long-term security," says Mohan, who accepted an invitation to join Labour's policy review team, although he is not a party member. "One reason the centre was established was to allow us to take a long-term view."
2008: Deputy director, Third Sector Research Centre
2005: Professor of social policy, University of Southampton
1995: Reader and later professor of geography, University of Portsmouth
1982: Various research and teaching posts at Plymouth Polytechnic and the University of London