I recently spoke about how the foundation uses research at the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference.
It was a potential undiscovered goldmine of useful research relevant to practitioners on subjects as wide as engaging black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, working with refugees, research methods and working with volunteers. It left me wondering why I’d never heard of it before. Researchers talking to researchers might improve knowledge but it won’t spread learning. And that’s a major challenge for a fragmented voluntary sector.
Our detractors, especially those in central and local government, often chastise the voluntary sector for being an evidence-free zone. Often with an assumption that small and local charities are particularly guilty.
When it comes to delivering services, local charities end up having to plead the case to would-be commissioners, often against much larger competitors. In my experience, commissioners should be beating at the doors of local charities that can reach people and places larger providers can’t get near. The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed this starkly. When the chips were down, only the local charities got anywhere near.
The evidence challenge is, of course, a big problem for small and local charities that rarely have the resources for research - or the time to engage with other researchers out there.
So what role can commissioners of research play?
Funders should certainly help practitioners to get back on the front foot – by building an evidence narrative that speaks to the intimate knowledge of local organisations that reach parts of our communities that others can’t.
Large funders such as Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales that work directly with frontline voluntary sector organisations have an important role in this. By bringing together what we learn from the many organisations we fund, we can produce unique insights into what matters and what works to tackle disadvantage. And because we can aggregate data from hundreds of small charities we can create a story of scale through hundreds of delivery points – not a single standard contract or provider.
We know funders are fortunate to have the resources. This is why it’s so important that those who research the sector speak actively to those who work in the sector.
Succinct summary evidence briefings, such as those produced by the Economic and Social Research Council, can be very useful for busy chief executives who only have 10 minutes to spare. But as Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said at the research conference this isn’t just about "disseminating findings"; it’s about active engagement between researchers and practitioners.
Given how poorly resourced sector research is, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn.
Those who fund research should insist researchers spend as much effort on discussing their findings with the practitioners they’ve researched, and asking how they can improve their own service evaluation, as they do on a glossy report that may tick a funder box, but will then likely gather dust. Without this, those researched are little more than lab rats.
It’s a huge task, but in gradually bringing together knowledge of what works to tackle disadvantage from those we fund, we hope to help reshape and re-educate the thinking on what others - with deeper public sector pockets – might value. And by doing this, we’ll bring the voices of those at the receiving end of services to the fore and help determine how services are commissioned and paid for. It’s what good consumer-driven organisations strive for and we should do the same.
Paul Streets (@PaulStreets_ ) is the chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales