TSRC members presenting papers at International Society for Third Sector Research

Current members of TSRC are presenting several papers at the International Society for Third Sector Research, Amsterdam, 10 – 13 July.

Of our funded projects, our three current or recent ESRC-supported awards feature,   as does our ongoing Leverhulme-funded work on community-level change in the voluntary sector and our FP7 project on the impact of the third sector. Other former TSRC staff and students are involved in presenting papers based on their work with us and several papers use the data resources TSRC has constructed over the years.

John Mohan is co-chair of the conference but rumours that a major conference session has been switched as a result of Wednesday night’s World Cup semi-final are greatly exaggerated.


Discourses of voluntary action at two transformational moments of the welfare state
Angela Ellis Paine (TSRC, Birmingham), Rob Macmillan (Sheffield Hallam), Rose Lindsey (Southampton), Georgina Brewis (UCL), Irene Hardill (Northumbria)

The publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942 and the subsequent establishment of comprehensive welfare services in the UK was referred to as ‘a revolutionary moment’. (HMSO (Beveridge), 1942:6). The same term has been used to describe the current context in which welfare services are being dismantled in England (Brindle et al, 2014; Lawton et al, 2014). At these two transformational moments fundamental questions have been raised about the respective roles and responsibilities of the state and voluntary action in welfare service provision (e.g. Alcock, 2011; Beveridge, 1948; Taylor-Gooby, 2013).

Discourses of Voluntary Action is an interdisciplinary research project that has been exploring the debates that have taken place on the role of voluntary action in the provision of welfare in the 1940s and 2010s through a combination of historic and contemporary analysis. It compares and contrasts popular, political and voluntary sector narratives identified from a range of archival sources, within and across these two periods of time. We draw on data from Mass Observation to explore popular narratives, government policy documents, speeches and parliamentary debates to explore political narratives, and key statements, policy documents, board papers and publications produced by five voluntary organisations to explore voluntary sector narratives. Together, analysis of these documents provide new insights into how, at two significant and relatively unsettled periods in the evolution of the welfare state, different narratives of the role, position and contribution of voluntary action in social welfare provision are articulated.

Our research project, through the voluntary organisations that we are working with, covers four different policy fields (children’s services, youth, older people, and voluntary sector overall). In this paper we will focus specifically on developments within children’s services. We draw on ideas from the theory of strategic action fields (e.g. Fligstein and McAdam, 2011) and discursive institutionalism (e.g. Schmidt, 2010) to explore: the ways in which different narratives have been constructed, articulated, contested and circulated; the extent to which they may be considered to reflect field shaping discursive interventions indicative of struggles over the boundary between the state and the sector; and how different narratives relate to each other in the struggle for ‘room’ (e.g. Macmillan and McLaren, 2012) and ‘common sense’ during periods of unsettlement and transition.

Attitudes to charities and charitable giving in Britain, 1947 – 2015
John Mohan (TSRC, Birmingham) and Beth Breeze (University of Kent)

Despite the scale of charitable activity in Britain little is known about the attitudes of the public to charities. The authoritative British Social Attitudes surveys (1983 onwards) have only intermittently asked about this topic, fielding occasional questions about understandings of the meaning of charity, knowledge of the activities undertaken by charities and opinions as to their efficiency and probity, or beliefs about whether charitable giving is in some sense a matter of civic responsibility. Apart from occasional surveys of public trust in charities, no other reliable national surveys have explored these questions. The absence of evidence on attitudes is important given a widely-shared goal of increasing charitable giving.

We seek to close this gap by linking together three sources of evidence. The first is the 1940s when the social research charity, Mass Observation, conducted interview- and survey-based research into aspects of charity. This is a rich source of primarily qualitative material on individuals’ knowledge of charity, their experiences of donating money or of being asked to donate, and their perceptions of the efficiency of charities.

The second is two sets of surveys conducted in the 1990s and the present day. In the latter years of the 1979-1997 Conservative governments, respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey were asked questions, sometimes on more than one occasion, about their knowledge of charities and about other questions such as whether it was a duty to give to charity. In 2015 we replicated some of the key questions to track continuity and change over time.

At present there are repeated challenges to charities, including criticism of fundraising tactics, perceptions of inefficiency and duplication, and concerns about priorities (e.g. whether British or overseas causes should be prioritised). The evidence we present shows, first of all, striking consistency between the 1990s and the present day in terms of beliefs about waste, duplication, and the challenge of deciding which causes to support. However there are also detectable changes, for example in terms of the priority given to particular areas of charitable activity. We also draw attention to socioeconomic differences in the understandings of charity held by respondents.

Secondly, we find an even more striking consistency with attitudes expressed in the 1940s by responders to Mass Observation, such as a similar sense of frustration with fundraising tactics, a lack of detailed knowledge of the sector, and a concern about the concentration of resources in and the business methods of large charities.

The studies in the 1990s and in 2015 were undertaken at times of significant efforts by government and others to promote increases in charitable activity. They point to a significant paradox: whereas this research demonstrates widespread scepticism, the British people continue to donate substantial sums of money each year and the proportion of the population engaged in giving and volunteering remains high. Our paper concludes by discussing what this might tell us about enduring issues of relevance to charitable organisations, their supporters, and fundraisers.

Change in the making: a qualitative longitudinal study of change in voluntary action
Angela Ellis Paine (Birmingham) and Rob Macmillan (Sheffield Hallam)

Welfare state restructuring in a context of austerity is contributing to a particularly unsettled environment for third sector organisations. Many are grappling with substantial change. Although change is nothing new in the third sector, the intensity and scale of change is arguably unprecedented. Two prevailing narratives about change seem to weave through these developments. First, a narrative of necessity and transition involves regular calls for third sector organisations to adapt to the changing environment by becoming variously more ‘business-like’, accountable and impact-focused. Second, a narrative of jeopardy and loss highlights threats to the independence and distinctive ethos of third sector organisations largely as a result of funding pressures and professionalisation.

Although reaching somewhat opposing conclusions, both are based on similar assumptions about the fundamental nature of third sector organisations and their relationships with external contexts. Organisations are presented as relatively passive products of their ‘environment’: change is framed as exogenous pressure which third sector organisations either embrace or resist. There is little room for how change is actively co-created, contested, negotiated, and experienced by multiple interacting relational agents, such as managers, staff, trustees, volunteers, service users and other stakeholders, in different positions of power and with access to different resources.

Based on a relational 'fields' understanding of voluntary action, in which actors seek to secure or advance their position or 'room' in multiple, fluid, overlapping and contested fields (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012; Macmillan et al, 2013), our qualitative longitudinal study is examining change in the making through four case study settings of voluntary action. The research explores questions of how change is understood, promoted, contested and experienced by different stakeholders; that is: how people think and speak about change; how different sets of actors are involved in change; how the broader environment shapes change within voluntary organisations; and the manner in which future change is shaped by past experiences. This paper discusses the intellectual context behind the study, and reflects on findings from the first wave of empirical research, set in the context of a longer term qualitative engagement (overall, by the end of the study, we will have ten years of qualitative longitudinal data from our cases). We focus on examining several 'through-lines' (Saldana, 2003) in our case study settings to explore the many different factors which we are already recognising as shaping change within organisations – some external, some internal, and the complex interactions between them.


  • Fligstein, N. and McAdam, D. (2012) A Theory of Fields (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
  • Macmillan, R., Taylor, R., Arvidson, M., Soteri-Proctor, A. and Teasdale, S. (2013) The third sector in unsettled times: a field guide (TSRC Working Paper 109, Birmingham, Third Sector Research Centre).
  • Saldana, J. (2003) Longitudinal Qualitative Research: Analysing change through Time (Walnut Creek, Ca, Altamira Press).


Financial vulnerability in English charities: matching survey data with administrative records
John Mohan and Yeosun Yoon (University of Birmingham); Jeremy Kendall and Nadia Brookes (University of Kent)

Charitable organisations in England have lived through a period of considerable economic turbulence in recent years, but deriving an accurate assessment of the impact of these circumstances on organisations is fraught with difficulties. There are three possible sources of such evidence:

1. Large-scale quantitative analyses of charity financial statistics drawing on data gathered by regulators, such as (in England and Wales) the Charity Commission;

2. intensive local or regional studies, typically based on small numbers of in-depth interviews with individual organisations, or on open-access surveys set up by voluntary sector infrastructure bodies. Often these produce apocalyptic conclusions, projecting the likely death of large percentages of the sector population. Research design and methods are generally absent from such work.

3. some large-scale regional surveys of organisations, principally in northern England. These at least are drawn from a reliable sampling frame but they still rely heavily on self-reported financial data and one might ask why this could not be compared with the actual experience of the individual organisations.

Such evidence clearly has the potential to shape attitudes. It may be a truth universally acknowledged that voluntary organisations are in a state of permanent financial crisis, but are these reported perceptions accurate? This would matter if, as has happened on various occasions, resources were to be allocated to support organisations perceived to be at risk. One way to determine this would be to compare responses given by organisations to social surveys, with reported administrative data on the same organisations. The aim would be to assess whether perceptions are indeed consistent with what is happening to their finances. For example, when reports are gathered from individual organisations concerning their perceptions of the operating environment, we do not know whether they are reporting from a position of strength or weakness: are their resources growing, stable or declining, and are they financially vulnerable?

In this paper we draw upon a survey of over 1000 charities in 2015, which contained various measures of organisations’ own perceptions of financial strain. We were then able to compare these with financial measures drawn from the same organisations’ reported finances for 2014-15. Thus for the first time – at least in the UK – we compare subjective indicators of organisational perceptions of their situation with contemporaneous information about their finances.

We model perceptions of subjective financial insecurity – as measured by questions about shortfalls of resources of various kinds – as a function of the characteristics of organisations, their current and recent financial position, and their geographical location. Controlling for a number of fixed organisational characteristics, we explore whether there is a divergence between the reports of organisations about their finances on the one hand, and the position revealed by objective indicators of their finances.

Support of and advocacy for ethnic minorities in Bethnal Green and Birmingham since 1960
Liz Bailey (TSRC, Birmingham)

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of new social movements in Britain and across the world, skeptical of the capability of the state to address all social problems and concerned with the needs of individuals, especially those hitherto marginalised under the welfare state (Knapp and Kendall, 1996; Finlayson, 1994). In particular, new social movements advocated for the rights of women, the disabled and ethnic minorities. The voluntary sector emerged as a key centre of advocacy for these groups, with activists drawn from it and to it, to promote innovation and a more individualised service. This paper explores the way the voluntary sector addressed a wide variety of needs and provided advocacy in this period to new migrants, as well as established ethnic minority communities in Bethnal Green and Aston, Handsworth and Sparkbrook in Birmingham.

Being key sites of post-1945 migration, these areas are particularly useful for exploring these issues.. This provides an opportunity for a nuanced investigation of the role the voluntary sector can play in addressing the needs of recent migrants and advocating for marginalised ethnic groups within communities. In Bethnal Green, one of the largest changes in this period was the shift in demographics with the arrival of new migrants from Bangladesh. Similarly, areas such as Aston, Handsworth and Sparkbrook in Birmingham saw migration from both the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. This led to a rise in voluntary sector activities to meet the needs of the new population and to advocate for their interests. Issues emphasised by voluntary organisations included racial equality and social justice, better housing and education provision and the needs of women.

This paper draws on historical material to explore in depth the way these organisations emerged to serve these aims. It draws on evidence from local archives and relevant funders as well as oral interviews from those who were involved in the voluntary sector during this period. The findings of this paper provide key insights that can be applied in an international context about the importance of the role of the third sector in meeting the needs of, and advocating for, marginalised groups, particularly recent migrants. In a global context of increasing migration, the issues migrants face and the ways the voluntary sector can provide support are key challenges for the future. It is therefore essential to understand previous initiatives that have attempted to address these issues.

Financial trajectories of English and Welsh charities 1999 – 2014
John Mohan and Yeosun Yoon (TSRC, Birmingham)

The dynamics of change in the funding of English and Welsh voluntary organisations are not well understood. There are studies of aggregate patterns of funding, pioneered in the UK by Kendall and Knapp (1996), and recently studies have analysed the distribution of income within the sector, variations in the income profile of individual organisations, and differential growth between types of organisation (e.g. Backus and Clifford, 2013; Clifford and Mohan, 2016; Clifford, 2016, 2017). These studies relate the distribution of resources to characteristics of charities, including an organisation’s age, aggregate income, scale of operation, location and subsector.

The recent turbulent history of the UK economy has raised questions about how to understand the effects on individual organisations and how to achieve a parsimonious characterisation of the range of possible financial trajectories experienced by organisations. We therefore turned to the literature on income profiles which has provided insights into the income mobility and trajectories of individuals or private companies. Such studies (e.g. Rigg and Sefton, 2006) focus not on absolute moves (e.g. percentage growth or decline in income) but on relative changes (e.g. moves up and down the rankings of organisations).

The data we use are captured by the Charity Commission for England and Wales from annual returns supplied by charities. We restrict consideration to 31000 charities which reported continuously over a fifteen-year period from 1999 – 2014. We assess the income trajectories of voluntary organisations and profile income patterns. In addition, we aim to identify which organisations are most likely to experience the most problematic (or stable) trajectories.
We identify five principal types of income trajectories. These focus on relative moves of charities up and down the income distribution. Thus a charity which remained within ten percentiles of its initial ranking throughout the period in question would be regarded as having a flat trajectory; if it had only one year in which its income was more than ten percentiles away from that position it would be regarded as having a “ flat with blip” trajectory. The majority of trajectories fall into two categories which are either flat (that is, movement of no more than ten percentiles of the income distribution) or flat with a “blip” (no more than one year outside the ten percentile range); over 60% of charities experience such trajectories. Others are rising, falling and fluctuating trajectories. There are significant variations by charity characteristics such as size (defined in terms of income), location, age and subsector.

Some of the findings are consistent with previous research which has emphasised the apparently vulnerability of medium-sized organisations, and also a liability of newness (the longest-established organisations appear to have the most stable trajectories). We also relate patterns of growth and decline to important socioeconomic changes relating to the support for pre-school education and for charities supporting young children, and point to downward trajectories which can plausibly be related to the impact of public funding reductions.

Beveridge, active citizenship and ‘Blacktown’: voluntary action in mid-twentieth century Britain
Phil Child, TSRC, Birmingham

In the 1948 report Voluntary Action, Lord William Beveridge lamented that the numbers of young people enrolled in voluntary organisations ‘make a poor show against the millions of young people who go weekly or twice weekly to the cinema’. Beveridge felt that engaging in ‘voluntary action’ was an essential component of ‘what the people of Britain will need for a good life’. For Beveridge, the public good was contingent on the ‘character of citizens’, with positive results best stimulated by voluntary public service and communitarian provision. Indeed, Voluntary Action aimed both to define the role of working-class mutual aid in the brave new world of the welfare state, and to set out a course of action for voluntary social service. Yet in a post-war social context in which patterns of domestic life and leisure were changing, not least in the immense popularity of the cinema, Beveridge’s emphasis on ‘character’ and leisure time spent on voluntary activity seems quixotic. This paper will use a historical lens to examine how the Beveridgean concept of ‘active citizenship’ – still a source of inspiration to voluntary actors in the present day – was buttressed by an antiquated reading of everyday life in mid-twentieth century Britain.

Through a historical analysis of the contextual roots of active citizenship in mid-twentieth century Britain, this paper will offer a critical interrogation as to whether ‘active citizenship’ is an entirely appropriate means of understanding voluntary action. Utilising survey material carried out by Mass-Observation in the supposedly archetypal working-class areas of Aston, Bethnal Green and Tottenham, periodicals and Beveridge’s own political thought, this concept will be presented as fundamentally a product of its time. But should we look for answers in a concept that seemed outdated and even inappropriate in 1948? In taking a long view on the subject of ‘active citizenship’, this paper will challenge the neutrality of the concept, enabling a more nuanced understanding of past moments of voluntary action. Through situating Beveridge’s thought against the context in which it operated, we can enhance our ability to define voluntary action in the rapidly shifting social context of the present day.

Posted on Tuesday 10th July 2018