During Volunteers Week, the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, the Association of Volunteer Managers, and the National Network of Volunteer-Involving Agencies organised an event focused on bringing university-based volunteering researchers and sector practitioners together. Hosted at NCVO, the five-hour workshop sought to build bridges between these two groups, who, frankly, should have a better connection. Around a dozen presenters, from universities and voluntary organisations, delivered short challenges to the 40 attendees, followed by lots of intense discussion.
Helen Timbrell, Executive Director of People and Organisational Development at the Samaritans, perhaps said it best when she directly addressed the need for us all to be a little less comfortable. Charities need to engage with research even if it shows they could be doing their work better, and researchers need to recognise that if their work isn’t made use of, what purpose does it serve?
Academic researchers are well-aware that our writing is often obtuse and our findings are hidden away in journals no right-thinking person would ever want to engage with; and charities frequently want a ‘quick win’ in research terms to showcase impact to a funder, rather than completing long-term and thorough investigations. Being honest about these different priorities is vital, especially at a time when both groups are seeing less available resource to devote to research.
As a member of the VSSN’s Steering Group, and a researcher focused on charity issues at Sheffield Hallam University, I will be the first to admit that I don’t personally do enough to make any research I do useful for sector practitioners. A lot of it is not always applicable in the day-to-day functioning of charities, focused perhaps on sociological trends rather than specific problem-solving, but talking to practitioners at this event showed a yearning for insight into the challenges the sector will face over the next decade, with the growth of digital and the retirement of the baby boomers the most frequently discussed issues.
What was invigorating to see at the end of the event was a commitment to be a bit better in the future. The different priorities will always exist, and they are unavoidable, but many individuals from a variety of organisations left the workshop promising to make some specific changes, such as a promise to invest resources in examining the sector’s failure to embrace greater diversity and what we can do about it, to a commitment to approaching universities for research opportunities. I myself will certainly commit to producing and promoting freely accessible, more practitioner-centred research in future (alongside the dusty journals).
The good news is we already know a huge amount about the voluntary sector: around what works and doesn’t work in fundraising; around the motivations behind and benefits of volunteering; and around charity leadership. Rather than re-inventing the wheel and doing the same research again, what events like this one reaffirmed was the need to get that knowledge into the right hands, and the fact that the opportunities to do it already exist. Through social media feeds, discussion lists, direct emails, and more engaged face to face events and conferences like this one, if everyone’s willing to be a little less comfortable, the rewards may well be worth it.