News analysis: Charity goes under the microscope

Emilie Filou reports on the recent plethora of new research initiatives relating to the voluntary sector.

Over the past three months, the third sector has witnessed a flurry of research activity. The Office of the Third Sector announced the creation of an independent third sector research centre, in addition to funding for the proposed centre for researching charitable giving and philanthropy.

The consultancy Get Heard said it was launching the Journal of Voluntary Sector Research (Third Sector, 10 October) and umbrella body the NCVO has embarked on a project to define the third sector (Third Sector, 3 October). Why this sudden eagerness to analyse the heart and soul of the charity world?

For many already involved in third sector research, such recognition is long overdue. Peter Halfpenny, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and chair of the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, says he is delighted with these developments. "It's such a huge and varied sector," he says. "There are a 1,001 questions to ask - questions about the sector's impact on society, its effectiveness, how it works with other sectors - for all of which we have only rudimentary answers."

New research is particularly important in the context of increased public service delivery. The desire to get the voluntary sector more involved has exposed how little evidence about its socio-economic impact was available. "This is one of the reasons why the Office of the Third Sector decided to take forward the voluntary sector research agenda," a spokesman for the Cabinet Office explains.

Coordination is key

Karl Wilding, head of research at the NCVO, hopes the new third sector research centre will act as a gathering point for disparate strands of research. There is already a lot out there, including activity by academics, consultancies, charities, umbrella bodies and government departments. Much of it never gets used, either because it's not what the sector needs or because it's not disseminated. Better coordination, he says, should ensure this new wave of interest is channelled in a cost-effective way.

Wilding argues that charities need to cooperate more in the research process, because it would lead to an improvement in the quality of the information produced. "The argument that small and medium-sized organisations don't have the time to go through research is just not good enough," he says. "We have to become more accountable."

Les Hems, director of development and external affairs at charity data website GuideStar, agrees more research is needed, but is concerned that efforts might be duplicated. "We seek to be a common information platform so that people interested in doing research don't ask charities for information we already have," he says. One example of how GuideStar tries to fulfil this goal is its provision of data for the NCVO's UK Voluntary Sector Almanac for the past three years.

Hems says the most crying need for research is at the regional level, where service delivery actually takes place. Providing it goes ahead, the Northern Rock Foundation's state of the voluntary sector research programme will be a seminal piece of research in this respect.

Cathy Pharoah, who runs independent research consultancy Third Sector Prospect and was research director at the Charities Aid Foundation until last year, says the sector as a whole needs to become more critical of the research it produces - wherever it comes from. "We need more debate and dialogue about what we're all doing," she says. "That's how academia works: we rely on peer review."

Pharoah hopes that the involvement of heavyweight funders such as the Economic and Social Research Council, one of the organisations funding the giving research centre, will promote this kind of engagement. It could also improve the quality of research, particularly in relation to giving, which has been plagued by small sample sizes because of the prohibitive cost of using larger samples.

Halfpenny also points out that funding for academic third sector research has been neglected because of its interdisciplinary nature. "The reward and funding system follows disciplinary lines," he says. "But get proper funding and academics will quickly gather round the honeypot."

New technologies could also help to disseminate new research findings. For example, the Institute of Fundraising's Insight in Fundraising special interest group recently posted the highlights of a one-day conference on YouTube. Halfpenny says such activity could play a huge part in exchanging ideas.

This universal call for further research signals exciting developments for the sector. The onus will be on everyone involved doing their utmost to make that research worthwhile.

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