Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) Online Day Conference: Volunteering in a Global Pandemic

VSSN Spring Day Conference Report: Volunteering in a Global Pandemic

This year’s Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) Spring day conference was hosted by the Institute for Volunteering Research at University of East Anglia in Norwich, hosted in collaboration with the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) and the International Forum for Volunteering in Development (FORUM) and the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC).

The focus of the day was ‘Volunteering in a Global Pandemic’. Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at the The Open University, and VSSN Steering Group member, wrote the following:

In this extended day event VSSN researchers and practitioners from the UK heard directly from volunteer-involving and volunteer support agencies around the globe, with presentations from the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region, and Africa and Europe.  The inclusion of different voices from so many different contexts highlighted the impact of volunteering during the pandemic on a vast range of challenges.  From India, we heard about the role volunteers played in supplying oxygen. From Peru, we heard about the support that volunteer psychologists gave to women in domestic abuse situations.  From Trinidad and Tobago, we heard about the development of a volunteer e-mentoring service.  There were multiple stories from around the globe of voluntary action in local communities to provide food, assuage loneliness, and provide a support structure to meet local needs.  Indeed, it was this everyday and yet extraordinary, often informal and self-organised local community support that was perhaps the most dominant theme of the day – described by one participant as ‘love in motion’

A second theme was the implications for volunteering support and infrastructure organisations of this growth in informal community-based voluntary action – in a context where many more formal volunteer-involving organisations have had to limit their services due to lockdown.  Several participants reflected on how their organisations might harness the growth in community-based, neighbourly action, but also recognised that the relationship between community action and the formal part of the sector is by no means straightforward.  In the words of one of our participants, there is a ‘fine line between encouragement and interference’. Understanding and working along that fine line in very different contexts poses a challenge for volunteer alliances and infrastructure agencies.  Participants talked about the importance of the  ‘volunteering ecosystem’, ‘tendrils of association’, the ‘intersectionality of formal and informal’, and the enabling environment, but also reflected on very different political contexts and the impact of those contexts on structuring support to volunteers.  An example was the discussion of national volunteer strategies (or their absence) and differences in regulation.

A third significant theme was the role of digital in enabling volunteering during the pandemic and the importance of digital for the future of volunteering.  Digital technology makes things possible and engages people in new ways (as our global discussion illustrated).  Tech enables a ‘mobility of knowledge’ and participants gave examples as to how volunteering activity developed and grew through, for example, social media, and online volunteering. However, tech can also marginalise, and this needs working through in the future to ensure a move to digital does not further exclude those who are already marginalised.  In one example, we heard about partnerships between business and schools to give children access to technology, but it’s not clear whether such partnerships will continue beyond the pandemic.

The final theme of the day was partnerships and collaborative working.  We heard of great examples of collaboration between volunteers and business, and volunteer-involving organisations and government.  But this was where the darker side of pandemic volunteering also emerged – the absence of government support in some cases and the failure of centralised volunteering schemes; gaps between government and sector-led support and services; and questions about the legitimate role of volunteers in state welfare.

This was an extraordinary day – hearing directly from people involved in making volunteering happen around the globe.  It reminded us all of the kindness and generosity of so many during the pandemic, but, looking ahead, also posed important questions for research and practice – about the future of community-based volunteering and its relationship with formalised volunteer-involving organisations; the role of volunteering in future state welfare; and the shape of future volunteer infrastructure.

The panellists were kind enough to record position statements which are available to view here, which helped us get the conversation started. They are very powerful, so we encourage you to view them if you are interested in diverse perspectives about the role of volunteering in a global pandemic.

Place Leadership Revisited – Phil Barton

Partnerships in Environmental Regeneration in North West England 1980 – 2010: a Practitioner Perspective

There is no longer any doubt that we are facing climate and ecological catastrophe if we fail to change our ways – and quickly.  Scientists are agreed – from IPBES to IPCC , from Sir David Attenborough to Sir David King – that the window for action is short, but also that it is not just government, or business, or civil society who must act, but everyone together as they can; globally, nationally, regionally, locally.

As practitioners in the North West of England between 1980 and 2010, we believe that our experience of a now largely forgotten way of working has much to teach us today.  Between 1970 and 2010, a three hundred year old legacy of industrial pollution of both land and water in the Mersey Basin and East Lancashire was successfully tackled.  And a key element of that success was partnership working – both vertically, from the European and national to the regional and local, and horizontally, across and between sectors and communities locally – to bring about change.

Figure 1

At the heart of these efforts were facilitating and delivery charitable trusts set up for the purpose able to bring partners together, overcome difficulties and make things happen.

In our article in the latest issue of Voluntary Sector Review, Place leadership revisited: partnerships in environmental regeneration in North West England, 1980‐2010: a practitioner perspective, co-authored with John Handley, Peter Wilmers, Richard Sharland and Walter Menzies, to whose memory the article is dedicated, we introduce case studies of Groundwork and the Mersey Basin Campaign.  Both were initiated by Michael Heseltine, who became Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Minister for Merseyside’ following rioting in Toxteth in 1981.

Heseltine had a strong belief in the value of partnership working, of the government, central and local, businesses, voluntary organisations, landowners and others working together to tackle environmental, social and economic dereliction.  Operation Groundwork in St Helens and Knowsley began in 1982, widening out from a county council urban fringe and derelict land reclamation proposal and was spearheaded by a charitable trust whose core members were a central government agency and the local authorities in the area, with a private sector chair, cross sectoral Board and a small staff team charged with making things happen.  A year later, five more Groundwork Trusts were established in the region on the same model, including Rossendale, the subject of the case study.  By 2000, there were fifty trusts throughout the UK outside of Scotland.  Key elements for success was an ethos of partnership with residents, communities, local businesses and so on, and a new approach to landscape remediation, adopting an ecological approach working with nature and using engineering solutions only when absolutely necessary.

Shocked by the state of the River Mersey, Heseltine also initiated the Mersey Basin Campaign in 1985 to clean up the whole catchment within 25 years.  Initially led by a unit within the Government’s North West Regional Office, a Voluntary Sector Network, later the Mersey Basin (charitable) Trust, followed in 1987 and a Business Foundation three years later.  With separate central organisations enabling, co-ordinating and supporting catchment and local action to improve water quality, regenerate the land alongside over 1,080 miles (1,735 km) of rivers in the Basin and to encourage communities and individuals to once again ‘value and cherish’ their waterways.  By 2010 the Campaign had achieved its main objectives and voluntarily disbanded.

In the article we discuss some of the key elements of success, including:

  • Simultaneous vertical and horizontal partnerships
  • The challenge of scale in landscape
  • Achieving sustainable outcomes
  • Responding to institutional change
  • Leadership and partnership working

Before briefly discussing some of the challenges of making the partnerships a success.  We reflect on power, governance and opportunity, drawing on our own experience and some of the academic literature.

As already mentioned, the Mersey Basin Campaign wound down in 2010 and Groundwork, which is successfully supporting environmental social, economic and cultural action to this day, matured and both responded to external changes, for example New Labour’s ‘new managerialism’, the Coalition Government’s withdrawal from regional working and resolute pursuit of austerity, and changes in local government.  Today Groundwork has developed new ways of working, enabling it to grow scale, impact and resilience and evolved other mechanisms to maintain strong local (‘horizontal’) partnerships.

We recognize that in many ways the world has changed in the last 20 years in government, in technology, in society and in the economy.  But there are important lessons to be learnt from the drive to restore the environment of a whole region over three decades we describe.

The challenges of climate change and ecological breakdown can demoralize individuals and place leaders because they seem so unachievable. But Zero Carbon Britain ‘sets out the positive, connected approach we need to overcome them – joining up research and practice across disciplines, borders, sectors and scales’.  We describe models of working – a visionary strategic framework coupled with community-level engagement through vertical and horizontal partnerships – that could be used to make these transitions possible. Does central government still have the vision and confidence in local partnerships to deliver fundamental environmental improvement? A new Mersey Basin Campaign for decarbonising the region, supported by government, and led by local government, business, NGOs, academics and community leaders, could energise and inspire a successful response within 25 years. It has been done before.

It would require a coherent policy framework, but the importance of charitable partnership organisations such as Groundwork or the former Mersey Basin Trust to act as enablers, brokers and champions for local action by all should not be underestimated.  At a time when the Government is poised to commit to 78% de-carbonisation, we invite all stakeholders in this amazing planet we inhabit to come together to demand of Government the resources, leadership and freedom to allow such vertical and horizontal partnerships to be established at all levels; to become truly transformative – and quickly.

A UK Charity Classification System

Our aim

In our previous blog, we introduced our project to refresh the classification of the national charity registers into ICNPTSO (activity area) categories, using keyword searching, and where possible applying machine learning techniques. To our knowledge, this was last attempted at scale over a decade ago.  

We also, however, acknowledged some of the challenges UK researchers face when using the ICNPTSO categories. These categories are broad groupings, originally designed to help enable international comparisons of non-profit organisations, particularly as part of national accounting processes. There are large gaps in a UK context, with notable omissions such as food banks, drug addiction services, or domestic violence refuges.

As part of our project, therefore, we wanted to develop and publish a new, additional classification system, alongside the ICNPTSO. We refer to these classifications informally as ‘tags’ and have aimed to make them more UK specific, more fine grained, and to allow charities to be associated with several tags at once.

Our method

This UK Charity Classification System (suggestions for a catchier name than UKCCS on the back of a postcard please), was developed iteratively over the early stages of the project. Each week we revisited the list of tags to make any changes in light of that week’s classification work. 

Our classifications are derived from the activities that charities write about in their annual returns. Where possible we have tried to hone in on what it is that makes an organisational ‘charitable’. In other words, what is the charity’s mission? 

Some define this in terms of a desired outcome, such as a less polluted world. Others focus on a particular group that they seek to help, such as military veterans. And others still focus on the specific activity or facility, for example offering benefits advice. Whilst trying to avoid overlap, we have included all of these types in the tagging framework to at least some degree.

The classifications included so far can be viewed on our Airtable list of charity tags.  

How successful have we been?

It is with some trepidation that we release our draft tagging framework into the world. Why? Because it is almost certainly ‘wrong’, or at least ‘not quite right’. Because of course there is no right set of categories, no right level of specificity, and no right use of terminology. Instead, we are in the businesses of trade-offs, sacrificing some potential benefits for others.

Furthermore, the tagging system remains a work in progress. As we start to develop keyword search rules, we are likely to continue to consolidate the list. There is little point, however, in asking for feedback at the very end of the development process. 

Harder still, we are aware that as authors of the tagging framework, we are implicitly helping to make some charity groupings more visible, whilst submerging or obscuring others. Some authors argue that this can help to reinforce existing power structures in society. They question who benefits from these classifications?

For our part, we hope the framework will be useful primarily for research, including by analysts from within the sector themselves. It is inherently a somewhat conservative approach, as we hope to capture the fields that charities and researchers are already using to frame their activities, rather than develop categories that are deliberately novel or challenging. 

How many tags?

The tagging framework is currently over 260 tags long, though it may become shorter. Its length may make it unwieldy and difficult to apply without a high level of familiarity. More nuance also arguably allows more room for ambiguity and disagreement over which tag fits best.

On the other hand, it is inevitably not long enough. Undoubtedly some users will be frustrated that their area of interest has not been included. Sometimes a combination of tags will be needed to capture a particular area of activity.

We have tried, as far as this is possible, to be led by the data itself. When in doubt, we entered key terms into the existing keyword charity search tool, always aiming for a minimum of 100-200 associated charities. Users are, of course, able to use this tool themselves to create their own searches for bespoke groups.


Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, we would welcome your feedback on the categories! We are keen to break out of our own ‘group think’ and understand how meaningful these categories are to a wider audience. 

  • Are there too many tags, or not enough?
  • Have we missed any major areas, or are any of the tags superfluous?
  • Is our hierarchy of categories and subcategories the right one?

Please send us your thoughts via our feedback form

As noted above, the classifications can be viewed on our Airtable list of charity tags.  


Chris Damm (Sheffield Hallam University), Oliver Chan (National Council for Voluntary Organisations); and David Kane (independent Data Scientist). 

Low-Budget Video Production: Visual Communication for Small Charities

Tot Foster

In 2020, Tot Foster was awarded a VSSN Development Opportunity Grant to fund a workshop for charity staff on how to produce videos on a small budget. Here she reflects on the process and sets out how all charities can make use of video, including her new online course.

Telling stories about impact, talking to supporters, reaching out, collaborating with service users – video can do so much for small charities. And in these strange times anything that can help with online communications has got to be good. But there’s a problem – not many small charities are making the most of video. It’s seen as expensive, time-consuming, and technically tricky to make. But it doesn’t need to be.

I worked for many years mentoring and producing videos with charities. I saw a lack of video training that really takes on board working with little time and money, in challenging situations with vulnerable people. So, to cut a long story short, I’m now at the end of a PhD researching and designing a production process to help charities start making their own low or no-budget videos. This is where the VSSN development grant comes in. My research has a very practical application which isn’t going to be realised by my thesis sitting on the shelf. So, with the help of VSSN, in October 2020 I held a day-long online workshop for nine charity staff. They came from organisations working with all sorts of people from refugees to children with learning difficulties. We had fun watching videos, brainstorming in break-out rooms, filming dogs and pianos and tinned soup on our phones. That was followed up by one-to-one mentoring sessions for whoever wanted it, on films they’ve got in mind. Three people went on to make brilliant films in their organisations straight after. You can see one of them here.

But that wasn’t the only good thing to come out of the grant. The plan was always to use this session as a learning opportunity to inform the writing of an online course. The brilliant Sorrel Parsons from Superhighways (who had hosted the workshop and recruited participants) got everyone to fill in detailed evaluations. That feedback helped me better understand changes that needed to be made. Since I applied for the development grant, the Open University funded me to write a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Low-budget video production – visual communication for small charities’. It’s now finished and is peppered with lots of low budget videos, some made in my bedroom out of cardboard! The MOOC is now live and available here: The first course starts on 8 March 2021, and then will be made permanently available.

Thanks to the development grant I learned lots of valuable lessons from the workshop that have gone into the MOOC: make it as interactive as possible, include suggestions for specific bits of kit, and do my best to de-mystify the editing process. I also then ran a spin-off workshop on animation you can do in lockdown (getting the cardboard out again) at the Superhighways online conference, Impact Aloud. Thank you so much to VSSN for supporting the dissemination of my work with a development grant, contributing in a small way to digital development in the sector. Thanks too to Superhighways and the Open University.

The MOOC ‘Low-budget video production – visual communication for small charities’ is hosted by Futurelearn, and is now available for registration at It involves 3 hours of learning per week for four weeks and is free.

You can find information on Superhighways at They provide training and advice on all things digital for small and medium voluntary organisations within the London area.

Classifying the charity register

To anyone doing research on the voluntary sector, or building services that help voluntary organisations, the size and diversity of activities that charities undertake is always staggering. From a large international charity building relations between Britain and Japan to a small trust maintaining a village playing field, the term “voluntary sector” hides a huge amount of complexity.

We are a small team of voluntary sector data specialists, supported by the Esmée Fairburn foundation to improve the classification of charitable activities in the UK. The project is still in its early stages, but we wanted to share our plans with the wider voluntary sector research community. 

Many data research projects on UK charities use the various national registers of charities as their main source of data. The breadth of activities that these organisations undertake, however, can mean that research on the sector as a whole hides the complexity, nuance and variation between these organisations. 

Voluntary Sector researchers may have come across the International Classification of Non-Profit / Third Sector Organisations (ICNPTSO). These classifications are widely used and were originally designed to help enable international comparisons of non-profit  organisations, particularly when preparing national accounts. As with any system of classification, they have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the user and their goals. 

A first potential concern for UK users of the ICNPTSO categories is that they are not recorded as part of charities’ registration process. They have to be allocated retrospectively; no small task given that there are over 160 thousand active charities registered in England and Wales alone. The last attempt to do so was over 10 years ago, meaning the number of unclassified charities continues to grow. 

Second, the ICNPTSO classification system is also sometimes a poor fit for common areas of charitable activity in the UK. For example, there are no categories for food banks, drug addiction services, or domestic violence refuges. 

Third, charities are also generally assigned to a single category. This has advantages for comparative analysis, but can make it even harder to capture the purpose and activities of some organisations. 

To help solve these problems, the research team has been funded to undertake a number of tasks. 

First, the team has created its own UK focussed classification scheme. This scheme is built from the ground up – we have started with a list of charities and then tried to attach “tags” to them based on their activities. It is more granular than the ICNPTSO system and designed specifically for use with UK charity data. 

Second, we are in the process of creating a manually classified sub-sample of the charity registers for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In line with previous efforts, we are applying a single ICNPTSO category for each charity, whereas for our own UK focussed tagging system, charities can be ‘tagged’ with multiple categories.  We then plan to use this sub-sample to create a set of automatic rules to classify the remaining charities based on keywords in their register entry. 

The task at hand is challenging but important. No classification system will be able to capture everything that anyone might be interested in (or it wouldn’t really be a classification system at all). Nor will we get every decision correct, especially with a limited view of organisations based on their written entries in the registers of charities. But we hope that our efforts will result in both a more up-to-date application of the ICNPTSO categories, as well as an entirely new way of breaking down and exploring charitable activities in the UK. 

Crucially, we want the outputs from this project to be used as an open classification scheme that can be used and owned by the whole voluntary sector. We don’t expect to get the answers right the first time, so the scheme will improve as people use and feedback on it.

We’re excited to share developments with you as the project progresses, and if you’re interested, please do get in touch or have a look at a more detailed outline of our project. We would love to receive your feedback or discuss our plans further. 

Chris Damm (Sheffield Hallam University), Oliver Chan (National Council for Voluntary Organisations); and David Kane (independent Data Scientist). 

Reflections on the New Researchers Support Sessions

In light of the COVID pandemic, VSSN decided to expand its support to new researchers, with new regular online sessions held to provide space for people to connect and provide peer support.  The sessions were hosted by Steering Group members Vita Terry, Jane Cullingworth, and Jon Dean. Sessions were held across the Spring and Summer, with around a dozen attendees each time from across the UK and Europe, drawing in people who had not participated in VSSN before. Sessions focused on peer support in a pandemic, how to publish from your PhD (with Chris Dayson, SHU), and how to disseminate your research findings (with Emily Dyson, IVAR and Nic Dickson, Uni of Glasgow).

Here, one regular attendee Karin Biermann (doctoral student at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt) reflects on the process.


What a difference it makes: Reflections on new researcher peer support

Karin Biermann

My mind map of doubt: Am I smart enough to undertake a doctorate? And if I am, is my area of interest exciting and influential? If it is, will I find a supervisor and be accepted into a university? And if admitted, have I the stamina and resolution to finish?

And on it went.

Doctoral studies are long and mentally, emotionally, and socially challenging, and in moments of self-doubt, there is the half-hope that there is a good reason not to start at all. Self-doubt acts as a process of self-deselection before and during the doctoral course.

The extent post-graduate students are orientated into and supported throughout their studies depends upon their institution’s history and resources, including access to networks such as Vitae. Yet, even if an offering were made to all students, doctoral studies are not homogeneous. Variations exist in the stages, years, intensity and flexibility, and according to location and subject. The process is complicated, living it is stressful and lonely, and social and collegial support offer essential counterbalance (Hazell et al. 2020). The question is, where can newcomers find encouragement, especially when their institutions fail to facilitate.

Enter another mind map doubt: picturing myself amongst the ‘next generation’ researchers featured in the university websites. This is confronting as I am, by all yardsticks, of mature age, meaning from a previous generation. Search engine results for “young researcher” compared to “new researcher” illustrates the point (for the daring, search “old researcher”, or look at images of “early career” or “early stage” researchers). Thankfully, VSSN did not make this stereotyping faux pas.

I was aware of VSSN, and its publication Voluntary Sector Review, and here is where the forum steps in. To be clear, I was a student, not a researcher in any stage or phase; researcher is a new identity. Luckily for me, the forum name – new researcher – clearly identifies the target audience, making joining-in accessible and transitioning to a researcher-identity possible, albeit a work-in-progress.

The first seminar in my first doctoral semester explored how history has led science being different from other dialogues, such as lobbyism, propaganda, or the trending term, ‘fake news’. History shapes the paradigms of science and knowledge as do the rules, norms – including stereotypes – and ethics of the institutions which cultivate them. In turn, the paradigms and the institutions set the stage for how science is scientifically communicated, even to non-scientific communities.

In recent VSSN new researcher forums, a raft of communication and dissemination alternatives have been presented. Not unexpectedly, getting articles published in academic, peer-reviewed journals to showcase science to the scientific community was a key topic. However, bringing science to a broader audience was covered by book writing and publishing and, in another session, tailoring reports and presentations to practitioners and policymakers, including internet and social media. To show that science is not only stuffy theories and formats, using innovative methods for collection and dissemination was made wonderfully clear by PhD student Nic Dickson presenting her The Art of Reconnection project.

What makes the forums unique is the down-to-earth, and welcoming exchanges within the group, notwithstanding the challenges of interpersonal communication in an online world. We come together because of an interest in civil society, a sphere with mutual support as one of its pillars, not an interest in a discipline. The group meet as peers, although, I must admit, referring to distinguished and accomplished researchers as peers may take a little getting used to. Presentations are a mutually respectful interaction within a small and at-ease group, not a top-down transfer of information from an expert other.

In my first doctoral seminar, Professor Matthias Karmasin encouraged us to read “Re-thinking science” as a critique of science and its relationship to society: ‘The more open and comprehensive the scientific community the more socially robust will be the knowledge it produces’ (Nowotny et al. 2001, p.258). Although the authors are making a larger point, the quotation allows peer support, such as VSSN’s, to be appreciated as more than a mutual exchange but as a precondition for generating valuable science.

Thank you, Vita, Jane, Jon and all my ‘peers’ for your contribution.


Hazell, C.M. et al. (2020). Understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers: a mixed methods systematic review with meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Systematic Reviews [Online] 9.

Nowotny, H. et al. (2001). Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Malden, MA: Polity Press.




Guest blog: Researching what matters to charities and donors

Dr Helen Owen, Research Consultant at Giving Evidence, introduces a new search for ‘unanswered questions’

Though both charities and philanthropy are long-established, the academic study of them is nascent but growing rapidly: new centres have been established in various universities in the UK and beyond in recent years. There is therefore an opportunity to ensure that academic research into charities and philanthropy focuses on the issues which, arguably, are of greatest value to the people it intends to influence: charities, institutional funders, and private donors. But does it do so?

Charity Futures, the new sector think tank led by Sir Stephen Bubb, is launching a major consultation to find out the unanswered questions or topics on which donors, funders and charity leaders most want more research to help them in their vital work.

This is intended to improve the transparency on how research topics are decided. Whereas to date the choice of research topics conducted in the voluntary sector has been largely driven and dominated by the academic community, the consultation is designed to stimulate more/better research of the type that charities, funders and donors would like to see, and thereby to inform and improve their activities.

The consultation, to be carried out by the consultancy Giving Evidence, will invite input from any charity, foundation, public or private donor in the United Kingdom. Through an open ‘crowd-sourcing’ process, including a series of focus groups in London, Edinburgh, Bradford, Manchester and Cardiff, the project will challenge the sector to tell it what research would be of most use.

This approach – of engaging the intended end-users of research in the process of deciding what should be researched – is relatively new to the charity and philanthropy sectors but has proven powerful in other sectors in terms of generating research focused on the issues most salient to its intended users.

The pioneering and rigorous consultation process that Charity Futures and Giving Evidence will be undertaking is based on a process created and used by the James Lind Alliance (JLA) which works in healthcare, to allow patients affected by particular conditions, their carers and doctors to identify and prioritise unanswered questions for further research. For example, the current research on cataracts is heavy on early detection and how to improve management; however, when patients and healthcare professionals were involved in a recent JLA priority setting partnership, the top priority question for this area was how can cataracts be prevented from developing? The potential implications of the findings from this consultation are that more research will be available into the areas that can improve the effectiveness of charities.

The consultation begins this month, with focus groups in May and June. The final conclusions of the study (due in May 2019) will be a prioritised list of research questions which donors and charities have raised. It will be published and available to anybody, including academics, researchers, research funders, donors, charities and policy bodies interested in charities and philanthropy.

The project is supported by a distinguished advisory group of funders, private donors, researchers, charity leaders and umbrella bodies.

If VSSN members have any networks of practitioners that would be interested in participating in the upcoming focus group discussions, please contact Christopher Penny ( for further details and invitations.








New year: time to bring politics and values back in

Linda Milbourne and Mike Aiken reflect on ethical values for research and action, drawing on discussion from the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in September 2017


Much is changing in the voluntary sector (VS) research field with many new connections and developments but we argue that there is a need to confront the political challenges and orthodoxy both within the research community and in the wider world.

Firstly we outline the current context and some transitions in research, and then point to ways that researchers could rethink and reframe debates.

Current context for voluntary sector research

Austerity has been profoundly damaging to the fabric of local communities, with no shortage of evidence on the dramatic increases in homelessness and the use of food banks over the last few years, along with a recently published JRF report on UK poverty. Yet the current Conservative government appears to deny the extent of widespread poverty, hardship and social inequalities. This increasingly raises questions about the position of many civil society organisations which, for some thirty or so years, have sought to locate themselves within the political mainstream of a now impoverished and rapidly privatising welfare provision. In parallel, such positioning has largely suppressed or silenced their campaigning roles, effectively separating most welfare charities from advocacy and campaign groups.

Up until recently, research in the VS field (particularly in the UK and US) has tended to be internal looking: exploring historical developments, teasing out definitions and features of the voluntary sector (as distinct from other sectors), focusing on volunteering roles, and often viewing issues from the inside out, rather than exploring shared interests across a wider range of research or practice fields. This research has also been distinct from work on social movements and activism.

We recognize that this is changing, and that the scope of VS research has broadened, with studies drawing on different theoretical frameworks and international perspectives, illustrated by papers presented at the September conference (such as on refugee movements, involvement in public health, criminal justice, education and housing). This marks a valuable shift to address common welfare concerns, to study crossover and differences between sectors and countries, and to draw on a wider frame of reference through which to conceptualise debates.

Challenging the starting point

However, much VS research still seems caught in the inevitability of market discourse, with the focus on competing for funds and contracts assumed as an accepted and acceptable way of life. This all too readily allows altruistic motivation to cede to competition and self-interested pursuits, and as Nancy Fraser[1]  argues more widely, has led to a crisis of caring and ethics in society. A critical analysis of the VS’s role in shoring up contractual cultures and more recently, corporations with questionable practices, is clearly called for but we need much more than criticism.

Outlining a society where people feel abandoned by government and public institutions can’t cope, Stuart Etherington[2] has recently called for a rethink of the role of ‘civil society’. His model advocates citizens as co-creators of outcomes, emphasising a much bigger role for community based organisations and local level democracy, to counteract increasing disillusionment with state and political systems. We don’t disagree with the need rethink the role and positioning of organisations within civil society, nor with criticisms concerning the disregard of ruling politicians. However, the renewed emphasis on voluntary association and citizen’s action is overly reminiscent of defunct Big Society schemes which floundered without adequate resources and infrastructure. Seeking to build local connections and trust in an untrustworthy world is laudable but it doesn’t pay the rent, and this proposed ‘way forward’ for the common good completely fails to address underlying structural causes of poverty. While some civil society organisations engage in proffering voluntary ‘band-aid’ but can do little to effect real change to the root causes of poverty, others are encouraged to rely on engaging with the kind of debt structures that led to financial disasters ensuing from the banking collapse which logically should have seen the death of neo-liberal economics (Crouch, 2011[3]).

Therefore, we need to challenge the basis of the politico-economic regime, highlighting its increasingly destructive social outcomes for too many people in our society. Much discussion has highlighted the space that can be found for improvements within current arrangements even in the worst regimes – the wriggle room that allows VOs to deliver at least some aspect of their original missions – and it is argued that this is better than nothing. However, seeking improvements in competitive commissioning and procurement practices or shoring up welfare gaps through voluntary action is not enough; instead, we need to confront the dominance of market discourse and the causes of our current ‘so-called’ austerity and construct more logical alternatives for allocating social resources.

Applying ‘band aid’ or addressing causes?

‘Band aid’ work, while hard to criticise, may be a distraction from understanding and confronting the causes of poverty, and can add instead to shoring up ‘common sense’ myths about the need for austerity policies, in turn resulting in normalising injustices and inequalities. Many forward looking charities, campaigning organisations and social movements within civil society have historically assumed a role in challenging such norms: for example, those engaged in the anti-slavery movement or the suffragette movement; and later, those who fought to establish social housing, universal welfare benefits and a public health service. More recently, groups have challenged people traffickers, violence against women and campaigned for ethnic minority, and gay and lesbian and transgender rights; or focused around shared issues in a locality or neighbourhood. This illustrates the multiple ways that formal and informal civil society groups have refused to adopt supposedly common-sense understandings and have been prepared to confront injustice and seek social change. This is civil society at work, deliberating values, actions and wider political consequences and researching supporting evidence.

Such challenges and alternatives enable a different vision, premised on recreating ideas of care, welfare and justice across society. In this way, civil society organisations can collaborate in aspirations for a more just society, rather than colluding in neo-liberal arrangements, supporting corporate profits and the destruction of public welfare systems and social gains built up over more than 150 years. Failing to assert alternatives and accepting ‘the way things are’ also entails acceptance of long-term and growing destitution as an inevitable fallout. A different vision also demands that we confront and distinguish wellbeing in society from the rapidly privatizing welfare state, essentially re-examining the contradictions between financial accumulation and care, and between markets, individualized gain and wider social welfare and equality.

Creating alternatives then depends on a better informed analysis of the increasingly punitive nature of neo-liberal regimes, which critics (eg Davies, 2016[iv]) argue are unsustainable, with the erosion of wages and multiple support structures. As activist researchers, we therefore need to draw on a wider arena of thinking than has often been the case, and to explore the interconnected features of civil society organizations engaged in social welfare and wider social action. This means creating alliances across broader research fields and shared interest groups to examine and challenge the attrition of civil society’s rights, irrespective of sector or type of organization.

This argues the need to examine changes among civil society roles more widely beyond welfare provision and to recognize that constraints on civil society have seen the erosion of democratic freedoms around the world – including the freedom to speak, act and move about freely. This freedom – or independence – has been prized in traditional VS narratives but is now restricted by law, contract and ideology. It’s been easy to fall back on ideas of association – an unproblematised vision of altruistic organisations but we need to explore conflicting narratives. Not all CSOs are benign. They may promote separatist and exclusionary interests which benefit a few but damage many. The rise of racism and violence following the Brexit vote offers one example but history provides others – such as the rise of fascism in the 1930s from rich associational life. This means acknowledging difference, being unafraid to challenge assumptions about the benefits of voluntary associations, and pursuing research analytically and critically.

Locating voluntary sector research in its wider socio-political context

One message for research then is to dig deeper and think outside the box. Within the research field and the wider world this means overcoming significant ideological challenges, some of which activists have been taking on. Future research needs to challenge current discourse, and collaborate across sector boundaries and interest groups. It needs to shift its focus to embrace a broader world view which explores CS roles and values in relation to wider political, social and economic changes in society, including social movements, campaigns and virtual worlds. That’s not ignoring the need to understand detailed features and finer arrangements but detailed local experiences also need to be located and understood within the bigger picture.

If we omit to make these wider connections, we risk narrowing our research perspectives and excluding crucial debates and experiences that are currently challenging society – especially concerning the erosion of democracy and freedoms and destruction of public welfare. Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in sustaining the values of democracy and democratic freedoms, and as researchers, we have a critical role in sustaining that

1 Fraser, N. (2016) ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’ New Left Review, 100 (July–August), 99–117.

2 Etherington, S. (2017) ‘Voluntary Action: a way forward’ CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness, November 2017.

3 Crouch, C. (2011) The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

4 Davies, W. (2016) ‘The new neoliberalism’. New Left Review, 101 (Sept.–Oct.), 121–34.


Call for nominations and volunteers

Would you like to support the work of VSSN? Do you have ideas about you’d like to see VSSN develop?

If so, please consider nominating yourself for a place on either or both of:

  • the VSSN Steering Group
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It is a self-nomination process; you do not need to be nominated by someone else.

Simply complete the VSSN Steering Group nomination form and/or the Voluntary Sector Review Editorial Management Board nomination form and return to the VSSN office by 21st October at the latest.

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More information about the roles and the election process here. We look forward to receiving your nomination.