6th NCVO/VSSN “Researching the Voluntary Sector” conference

7-8 September 2009, University of Warwick

Colin Rochester reflects on this year’s research conference and writes:-

The sixth Researching the Voluntary Sector Conference jointly organised by NCVO and VSSN took place at Warwick University on 7 and 8 September. The 2009 event continued to demonstrate the upward momentum in size and quality experienced in recent years. A record total of 154 participants – drawn from Australia, Ireland, Japan, Portugal, and the US as well as the UK – took part and chose from a large and varied menu of ten panel sessions and a further eighteen “slots” at which a total of 108 papers were presented.

The paper presentations were, as usual, “topped and tailed” by a pair of plenary sessions. In the opening plenary, Lenka Setkova presented an overview of the Carnegie UK Trust”s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland and stimulated a lively discussion by asking delegates to address some of the key questions with which the Inquiry team were still grappling ahead of delivering their final report later this year. Lenka”s focus on the future was complemented by the final session in which Bernard Harris of the University of Southampton reviewed the complex history of the relationship between voluntary action and the state over the past two centuries. This was a veritable tour de force and provided a fitting conclusion to a conference which had been rich in intellectual nourishment as well as practice and policy relevance.

The range of topics covered by the panel sessions and individual papers was as wide as it has ever been. It included the broad areas of community cohesion and well-being; philanthropy; social enterprise; and volunteering. There were presentations by the two new centres for research in the field – the Third Sector Research Centre and the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy. There were papers on theoretical perspectives and research methodology; the relationship between the state and third sector organisations and the government”s impact on volunteering; and more concrete issues such as commissioning; governance; and monitoring and evaluation.

This year”s Campbell Adamson prize for the best paper was awarded to Jean Ellis for her paper on Monitoring and evaluation in the third sector; meeting accountability and learning needs which just edged out another excellent paper on Family foundation philanthropy in an international context by Cathy Pharoah.

One particularly important aspect of the event was its success in attracting new researchers; this year, for the first time, we had to provide sessions dedicated to the emerging scholars of the sector on both days of the conference to meet the demand. Congratulations to Jo Stuart of IVR who organised this aspect of the conference.

This and the wider success of the event is heartening; on this evidence the voluntary sector research community is in good shape and its ability to inform policy and practice is at a high level. And it also supports the view that we have the “critical mass” to make a success of the VSSN”s new journal, the Voluntary Sector Review.

Further details (including full papers) appear at www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/researchconference09