Earlier this year the Economic and Social Research Council, one of the country's major funders of academic research, turned down a request for further funding from the Third Sector Research Centre, which was set up with more than £10m of funding in 2008 to fill a perceived gap in high-quality academic research on charities and voluntary organisations.
It was a big blow for the centre, based in the universities of Birmingham and Southampton, not least because last year the Office for Civil Society had also declined to give it more money. The predecessor of the OCS, the Office of the Third Sector, had, like the ESCR, contributed £5m of the centre's initial funds, with a further £250,000 coming from the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
The centre had, by common consent, made a good start in a programme for which the ESCR had chosen it only six years before and established several key projects. But now it has had to reduce its staff from 20 to five and prune its planned work, and faces an uncertain future. Further funding was also refused for the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, run by a consortium of five universities, which in 2008 had received £2m, also from the OTS and the ESRC.
When the ESRC turned down the centre's bid in February, it awarded £7m to the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods – known as Wiserd and based at the University of Cardiff – for a five-year programme of research into civil society.
A ESRC spokeswoman said the competition for its Centres and Large Grants programme had been intense: there were 99 applications, of which only four were successful. Twenty-seven of them claimed to relate to civil society, she said, which was identified as a priority in the ESRC Delivery Plan 2011-2015. The TSRC was among the 25 organisations invited to submit full bids and among the 10 invited to the final interview stage.
The spokeswoman declined to explain the decision further. But Third Sector understands that there were two panels that each interviewed five contenders before coming together to make final decisions. This meant that not all the combined panel had been involved in interviews with all the candidates. The only member of the panel with significant sector experience – a representative from the Barrow Cadbury Trust – had to withdraw from the final discussions because the trust was a TSRC funder.
It is also understood the panel that made the final decisions was concerned about whether the research themes identified in the TSRC's application were innovative or different from what it had done before. It also questioned whether the centre had made a significant impact on third sector organisations during its first five years and whether it had made sufficient use of data that it had generated.
Reaction to the TSRC's loss of funding: 'It means no organisation will have a core mission of reaching the sector'
John Mohan (right), who took over as director of the Third Sector Research Centre from Pete Alcock earlier this year, says it's hard to understand the decision by the Economic and Social Research Council not to provide it with further funding.
"It means there won't be an organisation that has a core mission of researching the resources, roles and relationships of the third sector," he says. "Nor will there be any independent academic body that takes the lead on construction of the evidence base about the sector – but we will continue to work with key sector partners such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on this.
"In many ways, we are now back where we were before the investments in the TSRC and the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy in 2008."
The decision has also disappointed others in the sector who fear that it could work to its detriment. Neil Cleeveley, acting chief executive of Navca, the local infrastructure body, says it did a great job over the past few years. "Its researchers and leadership team developed strong relationships in the sector and gained a huge amount of trust and respect," he says. "Its approach showed that collaboration can deliver and that being in it for the long term makes a difference."
This view is shared by Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange, a third sector think tank that has used TSRC's research to help produce reports such as Big Society Audit. "The work the TSRC has done has been invaluable," she says. "It mines down beyond the generalities of the NCVO's Civil Society Almanac to look at specific sub-sectors.
"The TSRC was starting to build some real, in-depth and specific research projects. I'm surprised there wasn't space in a very large grants programme to continue to build on what had already been done." Slocock is surprised because the research by Wiserd – which received funding for civil society research – will have a Welsh focus when, she says, there is a shortage of UK-wide research on the sector.
Cathy Pharoah, joint head of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, whose ESRC core funding has ended too, also questions the focus on Wales. "It is interesting, because Wales is devolved," she says. " In terms of civil society, it has got some strengths, but it's very different from what the TSRC and CGap did.
"It's a pity the ESRC hasn't continued with more of a voluntary sector programme, even if it wasn't continuing those two centres. Over time, we could have built up more of an evidence base that showed the contribution of the third sector, but we haven't got that."
Pharoah also asks whether it is right that investment into third sector research and charitable giving should depend on the "vagaries of a national competition".
Nicholas Deakin, emeritus professor of social policy at Birmingham University, who chaired the influential Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector 18 years ago, says the ESRC's decision comes as a great disappointment. "Those of us who campaigned for many years for official support for research on the voluntary sector believed the future was now secure.
"As a member of the centre's advisory group, I saw a wide range of work of excellent quality being delivered to different audiences – policymakers, fellow academics and voluntary bodies. I hope it is not too late to reverse this damaging decision."
Wiserd's plans for civil society research
The Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods, based at the University of Cardiff, plans to use the £7m it has been awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council for a five-year programme of research addressing civil society in Wales, the UK and internationally.
"This is a new research programme and is not in any way connected to the previous TSRC programme, although our programme will, of course, draw on previous UK-wide and global research conducted in this area," says Victoria Macfarlane, director of operations at Wiserd, of which the other partners are the universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor, Swansea and South Wales.
The programme, which starts in October, will address four key themes: locality, community and civil society; individuals, institutions and governance; economic austerity, social enterprise and inequality; and generation, life course and social participation.
Under the first theme of locality, community and civil society, researchers will look at how communities are evolving as a result of issues such as migration and gentrification. Ian Rees Jones (right), director of Wiserd, says: "The projects will address issues such as social participation and volunteering at local levels. They will also look at how global social movements have an effect at a local level."
The theme of individuals, institutions and governance, he says, will include studies of how much trust there is in institutions and whether key civil society groups are involved in the decision-making process. "There will also be a project looking at the role of universities in civil society at a local level and how their graduates might be more or less involved in civil society," he says.
The theme of economic austerity, social enterprise and inequality will address what has happened to civil society organisations since the economic downturn began in 2008. "We have projects looking at social enterprises, cooperatives and not-for-profit organisations and how they have been affected by austerity," Rees Jones says. "We're also interested in trade unions and their patterns of membership in different parts of the UK, and how these might be related to differences in volunteering rates."
The subject of inequality will be addressed through studies of what the Equality Act 2010 has meant for third sector organisations. "We'll ask if it's a help or a hindrance and whether it adds another complexity to what they do," Rees Jones says. "In particular, we'll look at how it has affected organisations delivering welfare services."
The fourth research theme of generation, life course and social participation will address issues including the extent to which people of retirement age participate in volunteering, clubs and societies, and whether their involvement influences their children and grandchildren's participation in civil society.
Some studies will look at what is happening in Europe, the US and Australia; Rees Jones says he hopes the results will influence how third sector organisations operate and the policies adopted by local and national government.
Rees Jones is aware of concerns about a lack of funding for dedicated research into the third sector, but says it is not Wiserd's role to fill that gap. "We're not here to benefit charities – we're providing high-quality international research on civil society," he says. "We're here to make a significant contribution to that general sector."
Impact of the TSRC: Data, debate and a new portal
In 2008 a report by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Office of the Third Sector, under the Labour government, concluded that there was a need for more research into the third sector in the UK, and in England in particular.
To address this need, the OTS and the ESRC each awarded £5m to the Third Sector Research Centre,a partnership between the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton, which is based at the former. The Barrow Cadbury Trust gave a further £250,000 and Pete Alcock, a professor of social policy, was appointed as its director.
Over the past six years, the TSRC has produced more than 120 research papers on subjects ranging from civil society at grass-roots level to the size of the third sector workforce. It has also produced work on the economic impact of third sector organisations, the nature and growth of social enterprise, and impact measurement by charities.
Most notably, it has helped compile a database of a representative sample of more than 10,000 charities, which is used by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to compile data for its respected annual Civil Society Almanac. More recently, the TSRC has, in partnership with the British Library, created a knowledge portal – an online catalogue of research relevant to the third sector.
Its work has also included evaluations, some of them critical, of government programmes and policies, including the Work Programme and the big society. John Mohan, TSRC's director, says he believes the centre has had a positive impact on the third sector and on policy debate, but "there are those who would argue that we can demonstrate the latter but not the former".
He says: "Our argument is that it is splitting hairs to separate the two: we always set ourselves up as an independent research centre, not beholden to anyone, whose research would provide neutral insights for the sector and its stakeholders. For example, some of our work fed into the government's Transition Fund, set up in autumn 2010 – is that an impact on policy or an impact on the sector?
"It is surely both, and we would hope that those evaluating our work could see that. Our work on volunteering – for example, discussion about the idea of a civic core, something now widely cited and appropriated by others – is something that certainly should prompt reflection by policymakers on what they could expect from voluntary action. But it should also prompt reflection from third sector organisations about the social distribution of volunteers, for instance.
"If it is said that we have not had a discernible impact on individual voluntary organisations, a moment's reflection should make it clear that with hundreds of thousands of organisations in the UK, we could never hope to do so. Instead, our impact has been raising the level of debate and providing an independent perspective.
"That means that, on occasion, we say things the sector does not want to hear. But it is not a requirement of making an academic impact that everyone agrees with your findings. We believe firmly there remains a need for that sort of independent perspective."
What's next for TSRC?
The TSRC has reduced its staff from 20 to five and has funding from Birmingham University and the Barrow Cadbury Trust for two more years. It plans to publish books on service delivery, volunteering, the distribution of third sector organisations and social enterprise. It will also develop its knowledge portal and contribute to Third Sector Impact, an EU project. The ESCR says it would welcome bids for more TSRC research through its standard grants scheme, which makes awards of up to £2m.