Event Details

23 February 2016
11 am-3pm
Barrow Cadbury Trust

Event Description

This meeting of English third sector experts from the worlds of practice and academia was convened by SSPSSR, University of Kent, and TSRC as part of the process of involving national stakeholders in the implementation of the TSI research project. The purposes of the meeting were: (1) to review Draft Policy Briefings reports, summarising (a) the findings from Workpackage 5 of TSI in the UK, focussing on perceived barriers to third sector development in England (Briefing one); and (b) in a supplementary analysis undertaken as a voluntary initiative collaboration by the University of Kent and TSRC, examining differences in the experience of barriers between organisations of different types (in terms of scale, policy field, age and other factors) revealed by the on-line survey (Briefing two); (2) to develop an indicative consideration of what might be future priority areas for policy and research attention, in the light of these findings.

Key Draft Briefings Highlights:

  • Shortfalls in public sector and other forms of funding were seen as major ‘barriers’.
  • Recruiting volunteers (particularly trustees) was also seen as a significant area of concern, but the workforce situation more generally was seen as a strength.
  • Organisations felt that public trust & confidence were not an issue but a lack of awareness was seen as a problem, so that the projection of image was a ‘barrier’.
  • The environment was seen as market- or quasi-market-driven to an increasing degree, and the political climate viewed as unconducive to non-service provision roles.
  • Case studies illustrated that some ‘exemplar’ organisations had managed to project strong public images backed up by evidence of impact, fostered cultures that supported committed staff, and deployed a range of skills in negotiating external relationships. This combination had equipped them to flourish, despite the pressures associated with austerity.
  • Organisations located in areas of deprivation expressed strongest concerns about resource constraints, ability to balance different functions and marketisation.
  • ‘Younger’ organisations (founded under the New Labour (1997-2010) or Coalition (2010-15) administrations) were more likely to experience significant ‘barriers’ than longestablished ones.
  • Location in areas of deprivation and age of organisation were the biggest predictors of concern about finances, both now and in the future.

Discussion of Briefings:
The findings of the research were endorsed as revealing and resonant, but there were four key ways in which the group felt the representation of the third sector’s situation could be adjusted to good effect. First, there was a need to strengthen further the account of volunteering in relation to charities operating in social policy fields. Existing evidence allowed more to be said than had been expressed in the initial draft of some considerations relevant to shortfalls in volunteer recruitment in general and at board level (trustees). The group agreed that demographic shifts and generational change were important here. The existing volunteer profile may be dominated by cohorts of older people, where enduring loyalty and linkage at the level of individual organisations was more prevalent. There was a body of evidence to suggest that younger cohorts have increasingly expressed their commitments to causes, and not necessarily particular organisations. At the same time, involvement has frequently taken the form of more flexible and ephemeral engagement (giving up ‘slices of time’ and ‘dipping in and out’). The finding that organisations face shortfalls should be more explicitly linked to the challenge of responding to this new pattern of behaviour and expectations.

The group agreed that there were escalating problems around recruiting for governance – the position of Boards (trustees) in particular. This was due to the reality of increased responsibilities placed on trustees, and shifting perceptions generated by the way in which Board failures in some high profile national charities had been represented in the media. The fundamental importance of being efficient, but also creative and transparent, in trustee recruitment was emphasised, even while it was recognised that this was extremely challenging.

A third emphasis emerging on the group was the extent of externally generated, or self-imposed constraints on advocacy and campaigning at the current time. The on-line survey found some modest evidence of difficulties amongst respondents in striking a balance between service provision, campaigning and community development. However, this research had been conducted in 2015, and the situation had become yet more problematic moving into 2016. There was a need to recognise how the situation was evolving rapidly.

Finally, it was agreed that the extent to which the case study exemplars were unusual should be further highlighted. In particular, it was suggested that the movement towards the adoption of impact evaluation frameworks was very limited in the English third sector at large. There was believed to be a tendency towards a serious lack of investment in evaluation here, and poor evaluative practice was believed to be widespread. Accordingly, the case study exemplars, which had found ways to invest seriously in evaluation, and in having combined this investment successfully with other tactics to respond to austerity pressures, should be seen as exceptional.


From these considerations, the following implications were discussed:

  • Governance was a key issue. Realistic ways of supporting charity trustees should be developed as a key priority for policy.
  • Volunteering recognition. The group agreed that there was still a widespread view that volunteers were a “free” resource, and their contributions could be taken for granted, based upon historical assumptions. But the reality was that serious investment was required to recruit them in the first place, and then to retain and develop them. And because the needs and expectations of volunteers were evolving, such investment needed to be not only significant in scale, but responsive to changing conditions.
  • Organisational maturation. In the light of evidence that charities established over the past 20 years have tended to appear less able to deal with ‘barriers’ to development, support should be in place to build resilience in the first years of set-up. And for those organisations likely to grow in response to social need, it would also be important to provide support to foster longer run sustainability.

Participants: Margaret Bolton (independent consultant); Nadia Brookes (PSSRU); Dan Corry (New Philanthropy Capital); Nicholas Deakin (independent analyst); Jeremy Kendall (SSPSSR); Rob Macmillan (TSRC); John Mohan (TSRC); Nick Ockenden (NCVO/Institute for Volunteering Research). (Apologies were received from other Expert Group members.)

The meeting was generously hosted by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, an independent, charitable foundation, committed to bringing about socially just change.