Morgan offers voluntary sector research agenda

VSSN Treasurer Gareth Morgan, writing in an individual capacity to members of the VSSN Steering Group, today mooted a voluntary sector research agenda.

“A few weeks ago someone asked me to write a short note about the nature of voluntary sector research”, Gareth said. “So in a few minutes I produced the simple taxonomy below. I am sure you can all do 900% better, but I just though that for our ‘strategic thinking’ about VSSN it might help as a very first step towards an overview of what VSSN is all about.”

Other scholars in the field on the Steering Group noted this was controversial and pointed up previous attempts to define our field. Here is what Gareth wrote:-

THE NATURE OF VOLUNTARY SECTOR RESEARCHGareth G Morgan, Sheffield Hallam University – March 2004Q: What is the role of research for the voluntary sector?

A: Research is vital to all areas of society if we are to understand the nature of our society, the causes and the trends. Research on the voluntary sector is crucial to enable the sector to be effective and to enable other stakeholders to assess how best they can work with voluntary organisations.

Voluntary sector research is, however, relatively new as a discipline. Until about 15-20 years ago there was little awareness of the distinctive nature of the sector, and hence little appreciation that research in other sectors might not be applicable to voluntary organisations. Also there was a tendency to see voluntary activity as marginal to mainstream social and economic activity, and hence not particularly worthy of research.

Today that has changed enormously, with many voluntary organisations for whom research is a significant part of their work, and increasing amounts of research for and about the sector being undertaken by universities and independent researchers.

There are many dimensions to voluntary sector research – the following is a possible initial categorisation, but clearly many other categories could be added.

(a) Research seeking to understand the nature of the sector as a whole, especially statistics on total income, staffing, figures on numbers and types of organisations, and trends in these figures.

(b) Research focused public support for charities and voluntary organisations, especially in terms of donations of time (volunteering) and money (charitable giving). Much fundraising research is in this category.

(c) Research focussed on support for charities and voluntary organisations by government and by other funding bodies. Much of this includes work on government/voluntary sector relations (national and local), also much evaluation research.

(d) Research seeking to explore the role of the voluntary sector in social policy: in particular, the key role of the sector in a way range of social inclusion initiatives. Also, much of the research on social capital is focussed on involvement in voluntary organisation.

(e) Research on the operation of voluntary organisations in relation to issues such as governance, financial management and other themes where the voluntary sector operates differently to other organisations.

(f) Research on specific classes of voluntary organisations (e.g. community associations, voluntary sector infrastructure organisations, faith-based organisations, etc).

(g) Research on service provision by voluntary organisations. Much of this does not really fall in the field of “voluntary sector research” as such but is more within medical research, educational research, sociology etc – depending on the field of the organisation’s work. Nevertheless, researchers in these areas are often seen as part of the voluntary sector research community if there are specifically looking at these issues in a voluntary context. A good deal of this research is based within specific organisations looking at their own beneficiaries – e.g. tenants of a housing association.

(h) Research concerned with regulation of the sector: charity law, accounting rules, prevention of abuse, public confidence, etc.

The above list is largely UK focused. There is also much international research on the role of NGOs.