A report on the recent VSSN day conference on May 9th in York has been posted, written by steering group member Linda Milbourne.
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 (Christopher@charityfutures.org) for further details and invitations.
DEADLINE EXTENDED: Following a number of requests, the deadline for abstracts for 2018 @VSSN_UK & @NCVO Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference is now May 9th.
So you have the bank holiday weekend to finish your abstract!
Submissions welcome on all topics, particularly around trust, transparency and accountability.
2018 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference – New Researchers Sessions
The New Researchers Sessions run alongside the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, which this year is taking place in London on 6th and 7th September.
The Call for Papers for the New Researchers Sessions is now open. The deadline for submissions is 9th May.
The aim of the sessions is to give new researchers (i.e. those who are new to research or who are new to the voluntary sector) an opportunity to:
- present their research
- get constructive feedback in a supportive environment
- meet other new researchers and network
- network with established researchers and practitioners
These events are organised by the Voluntary Studies Sector Network (VSSN) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).
The deadline for abstract submissions is 9th May. There is also an opportunity to be considered for the Campbell Adamson Memorial (New Researchers) Prize.
For more information, download the full call for papers.
Trust, Transparency and Accountability of Charities and Voluntary Organisations: Challenges for Policy, Practice and Research
Public trust in charities, voluntary organisations and wider civil society is under threat from a perceived lack of transparency and accountability surrounding its work. From the Oxfam scandal, to the failure of Kids Company, and ongoing concerns about fundraising practices, the media gaze and political spotlight is increasingly falling on organisations’ work. This raises some important questions for research on the voluntary sector and volunteering:
- How is the sector, and civil society more generally, affected by and responding to media and political challenges to become more transparent and accountable?
- How is public trust holding-up in light of recent events, for individual organisations and the sector as a whole?
Alongside this intensified public attention, the voluntary sector and wider civil society continues to deal with a complex series of challenges associated with rising inequality, material hardship, and multiple disadvantage, whilst campaigning and advocating on behalf of some of society’s most seldom heard voices. This broader context presents, inevitably, opportunities and challenges for the voluntary sector and volunteering, and high quality research and analysis are needed more than ever to help understand these.
The Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference – organised by NCVO and the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) – provides a unique opportunity for academics, policy makers and practitioners from the UK and further afield to come together to share and discuss research that addresses the conference theme and the broader issues facing the voluntary sector and volunteering at this time.
Location: NCVO Conference Suite, London
|9 May 2018||Deadline for paper proposal submissions|
|5 July 2018||Early bird rate ends|
|6-7 September 2018||The conference|
How to submit your proposal
All delegates at the conference must pay the conference rates in order to participate, including those presenting a paper.
You don’t need to present a paper to attend. Bookings are not yet open for the 2018 conference but you can register your interest here.
Aims and themes
The conference aims to:
- Contribute to evidence and theory-building in the field
- Develop emerging research ideas
- Inform and be informed by the work of practitioners
- Inform and influence policy
We welcome submissions for individual papers, panel sessions and workshops. Given the conference theme, we are particularly keen to receive proposals that address issues associated with trust, accountability and transparency, but we do also welcome papers that address a range of issues relevant to volunteering and the voluntary sector. As such, submissions should be also aligned to the following streams:
- Civil society, democracy and grassroots voluntary action
- Volunteering, participation and social action
- Advances in theory and methods
- Resourcing the sector: funding, fundraising, philanthropy and social investment
- Organisational management and governance, including law and regulation
- Historical perspectives on the voluntary sector and voluntary action
- Sectoral boundaries: private-voluntary-public sector relations
- Understanding, measuring and valuing outcomes and impact
When submitting abstracts, authors will be asked which streams they feel their paper will fit best within. We welcome contributions from a variety of disciplines, including sociology, social policy, politics, psychology, geography, economics, business studies, social anthropology, philosophy and ethics.
Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize
Presenters who submit a full paper prior to the start of the conference will automatically be in with a chance of winning the Campbell Adamson Memorial prize for best paper, which includes a £500 prize.
The Conference is an ideal opportunity for new or early career researcher looking to meet, discuss and present their research with other new researchers in a supportive setting. A special series of parallel sessions will be run as part of the conference for ‘new’ researchers. Attendance at this part of the conference is subsidised, and is intended for all early career researchers in the field of voluntary sector studies, whether postgraduate students or working/volunteering in the voluntary sector.
A call for papers for the New Researchers Sessions is also open – details here.
Want to find out more?
Should you have any queries on the 2018 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research conference please email us.
Youth Action, Activism and Education:
Continuities, Changes and Possibilities
Thursday 15th March, 2018
The Spitfire Ground, St. Lawrence, Canterbury, Kent
Youth action, civic activism and education stands at an important crossroads. A number of recent political events across the world have evidenced the importance of, and need for, young people to play an active role in their communities – and to do so in critical and creative ways. While there is now a body of literature which refutes the view that young people are disengaged in political processes, there remain questions about precisely why and how young people experience social action and activism, and whether they do so in equitable ways.
Viewing such questions as vital, this free one-day conference will explore international, national and local perspectives on the changing nature of youth action, activism and the associated implications for education. This is a partnership event organised and supported by Canterbury Christ Church University, VSSN and Leverhulme Trust.
Places at the conference are limited. To register and save your place, please contact Professor Andrew Peterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) providing your institutional/organisational affiliation and details of any dietary and accessibility requirements.
Developing innovative approaches to tackling complex social problems – opportunities and challenges
VSSN’s next day conference will take place on 9th May 2018, hosted by York Business School, York Saint John University.
Academic and media commentary on charities and civil society organisations often presents a pessimistic view of organisations facing many challenges, whether due to funding constraints, loss of autonomy and public trust, and reputational damage following links to public scandals. While a critical analysis of the voluntary sector role in shoring up competitive and contractual cultures is called for, we also need to recognise that alternative models and initiatives are emerging, especially at grassroots levels.
There are growing pressures on locally based community organisations and social enterprises to tackle increasingly complex social issues, but organisational actors are also active in developing different ways to address these challenges.
This day seminar aims to explore new and innovative approaches which are being put in place to tackle complex social problems, including enduring and increasing poverty and growing inequalities, and the forms and effectiveness of such new approaches.
The seminar will ask how organisations and communities are responding to prolonged public sector funding cuts, austerity and the upheavals caused by political uncertainties, including over BREXIT. It will explore a range of questions, for example:
- Do new initiatives represent an opportunity to innovate and work together to successfully tackle complex social problems?
- If so, what initiatives are emerging that present sustainable opportunities for the future?
- Which initiatives are proving successful and which are not, and why?
- What challenges do organisations face in developing new initiatives in the current environment?
- Can successful strategies be replicated in diverse communities and what problems are encountered in achieving this?
We welcome contributions from researchers, academics, doctoral students and practitioners from a broad range of fields around innovative initiatives taking place in different communities, and critical theoretical debates on what is happening to voluntary and community sector innovation and enterprise in the current period.
We will be pleased to consider proposals on related topics which may include (but are not limited to) organisations working with diverse groups in the population, for example refugee groups, those facing inequalities due to geography, black and minority ethnic led, women’s and faith-based groups.
Your abstract should outline your proposed paper, showing how the issues you raise will contribute to the themes for the day.
Abstracts of 250-300 words should be sent to: email@example.com by March 12th.
Please also attach contact details.
If helpful, please contact Mike to discuss contributions informally in the meantime.
Attending the event
VSSN aims to promote an understanding of the UK voluntary sector through research. The event is aimed at researchers, academics, doctoral students and practitioners in voluntary organisations or foundations interested in the UK voluntary sector. We also welcome policymakers and practitioners engaged in relevant fields. We are always pleased to meet and receive contributions from colleagues in similar settings in other countries. The working language is English.
Booking for the event will open once the programme is finalised.
We look forward to welcoming you at York Saint John University on May 9th 2018.
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 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 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).
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
2 Etherington, S. (2017) ‘Voluntary Action: a way forward’ CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness, November 2017.
You can now read a short report of the recent VSSN Day Conference, ‘Leading through challenging times’, here – with a link to the CVSL website where you can watch videos of each presentation.
Thursday 15th March, 2018
Canterbury Christ Church University, UK
This free one-day conference will explore international, national and local perspectives on the changing nature of youth action, activism and the associated implications for education.
The programme will include keynote speakers and papers which will introduce and raise key aspects of this topic. We also welcome papers from researchers from across the career stage and located in a diverse range of fields, which may span education, youth studies, voluntary action, activism and participation in civil society organisations.
To present a paper or poster, please send an abstract (up to 250 words with your email and institutional affiliation) in Word format to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your abstract should outline your proposed paper, showing how the issues you raise will contribute to the themes for the day.
Download the full call here.
The deadline for abstracts is 10th January 2018.
Places at the conference are limited, and registrations will open mid-January.