The charity sector is rapidly becoming a field of academic research. But to what extent do organisations benefit from that? asks Beth Egan.
The traditional image of people involved in charities as genteel, well-to-do older ladies in twinsets and pearls has not been accurate for many years. The challenge of working in an increasingly professional, rewarding and occasionally well-remunerated sector has attracted a new army of energetic, high-flying professionals who might previously have sought employment in the private sector. But the latest wave of entrants to the sector differs from both the classic charity workers and the sharp-suited brigade. Some of the brightest and best graduates who might previously have stayed within the ivory walls of academia or sought positions in research institutions are choosing to apply their minds for the benefit of a wide range of voluntary-sector organisations.
Proof of this trend is evident in the explosion of postgraduate courses that have been established in the past decade to cater for students who want to specialise in the voluntary sector as their chosen subject. There are now 18 universities across Britain, from Ulster to Sussex via Edinburgh, Leeds and no less than five London universities, which offer the opportunity to study and research the voluntary sector.
The recent rapid development of voluntary sector research is all the more notable given that the first academic course focusing on the sector only began in the late 1970s in the US, when Kingman Brewster, a former US Ambassador to the UK and subsequently President of Yale University, established the Programme on Non Profit Organisation at Yale. In the subsequent 25 years, around100 similar programmes have been established in institutions around the world. The knowledge base of the sector has changed from small-scale, piecemeal studies to an established discipline boasting a number of international, peer-reviewed journals and regular gatherings for researchers such as NCVO's conference in Nottingham on 3 and 4 September.
While some proud owners of masters, and even doctorates, in voluntary sector studies are practitioners who return to higher education to enhance their knowledge, many of the students enrolling on these courses are new graduates with little or no track record in the sector.
Sarah Lindsell, a graduate of the LSE's course in Voluntary Sector Organisation, says: "I was only 24 when I chose to study for a masters degree in the voluntary sector. I wanted to learn all the things that would be taught on an MBA course but with the focus on working in the voluntary, rather than the private sector."
Lindsell, who is now director of the Catholic social welfare agency Catholic Agency for Social Concern, adds: "I graduated in 1995 and am glad I studied the sector at the start of my career because I've been able to use the skills throughout my working life."
Many people with a voluntary-sector qualification hope to secure a more senior or managerial post with a charity, but studying the sector is also a career end in itself. Many large charities now have in-house researchers to support the wider mission of the organisation. When the Giving Campaign designed its original budget, a tenth of the expenditure was committed for spending on research.
For those organisations unable, or unwilling, to pay for in-house researchers, consultancies - some based in universities and some operating as commercial enterprises - offer a similar set of skills and services. Joe Saxton from nfpSynergy, the voluntary-sector think-tank, says: "It is excellent that there are so many people researching the sector."
However, Saxton has concerns about what he describes as "an obsession
with studying fundraising, suggesting that as much as 80 per cent of all research is concerned with questions about charitable donors, at the expense of extending the sector's knowledge of equally important subjects such as governance, the role of trustees and the delivery of services.
A further concern of Saxton's is the potential for those researching the sector to be too distant from the subject of their enquiry. "Where I get worried is when people who are disjointed from the sector, like academics who write papers without reference to practitioners, are the ones who have the ability to influence opinion. Researchers with the best intentions who are semi-detached from the coalface can give recommendations that are unworkable."
This concern is shared by Colin Rochester, convenor of the MSc in Voluntary Action Management at Roehampton University.
"There are three different reasons for studying the sector,
he says. "One is an academic approach concerned with producing scholars who can analyse the sector, the second is driven by an interest in the increasing amount of policy relating to the sector and the third is research that helps managers working in the sector."
While endorsing the view that research could be better co-ordinated, Rochester notes: "One of the problems with seeking to 'join up' the research community is that these are discrete approaches serving different ends.
They are equally valid, but the scholar and the practitioner-manager do not use research in the same way."
The distinction between thinking and doing can be overplayed, however, and most senior managers in any sector are interested in keeping up with the latest research in their field. The trend towards charity employees taking time out for study and full-time academics being employed within the sector is a welcome development and marks the growing maturity and professionalisation of the voluntary sector in Britain.