“Substantial gaps” in data are having major implications for how effectively the voluntary sector is able to function, according to a new paper.
What’s missing? Evaluating social sector data gaps has been published by the research charity Pro Bono Economics as part of the ongoing Law Family Commission on Civil Society, a two-year initiative launched in December that aims to examine how the potential of civil society can be unlocked across the UK.
PBE said that as part of the commission’s work, it was examining the role and potential for better data about social sector organisations, with a particular focus on charities.
The paper, which is based on issues raised at a workshop attended by social sector organisations with expertise on data, looks at what the data gaps are, their implications and why these are challenging to address.
“Available data on the social sector – its size and shape, demography and financial health – is relatively poor, particularly compared to data on the private sector,” it says.
“Official statistics are thin, often treating charities and other non-profit entities as residual categories. Much of what does exist in official statistics is hard to access, particularly in real time, and fragmented.”
The report says “substantial gaps” in data are having effects including limiting the ways that unmet need can be identified.
“There is not a clear way of identifying service gaps, either in terms of geographical location or of type of service, because there are no accurate registers of where organisations are operating and what services they offer,” it says.
“This makes it challenging to decide where and how to deliver services. Funders may also wish to close service gaps or target certain local areas or types of intervention, but struggle to identify what exists already.”
The report says this makes it harder to support collaboration and creates a risk of multiple organisations delivering the same support in the same area.
The report says that a lack of robust, recent data makes it difficult for policymakers to understand the sector-wide level of financial risk and forecast the possible effects of policy change.
A lack of evidence also makes it difficult to draw an accurate picture of the sector’s impact, the report says.
It says that while data on registered charities tends to be good, if not timely, there are still major challenges with the completeness and accuracy of data.
“In particular, there is a huge absence of data surrounding organisations that are not registered charities (and even for those that are, data on the smallest organisations in particular is hard to compile).”
It says: “The social sector is characterised by organisations with a range of different legal statuses, while unincorporated community groups and associations are ‘below the radar’ of public registers and membership bodies.
“For instance, many campaign groups are not eligible for charitable status due to the nature of their operations, and are incorporated as companies limited by guarantee. This makes them almost impossible to distinguish from private companies in many datasets, even if the groups are non-profit.
“Even within the registered charity sector, micro-organisations (which make up the bulk of the sector) are not required to submit full accounts. As a result, there is an incomplete patchwork of information at the organisational level.”
The paper says that in response, the Law Family Commission on Civil Society is working on a data mapping exercise to identify the various sources of data about the voluntary sector, which will be published as an open access tool.
“In consultation with stakeholders, we will be doing further work to identify key areas where better data collection or management is achievable and could offer significant benefits to social sector organisations and their stakeholders,” it says.