Austerity measures and welfare reform are contributing to a particularly unsettled environment for third sector organisations. Many are grappling with substantial change. Indeed, organisations are telling us that, although change is nothing new in the voluntary sector, the rate and scale of change that they are currently experiencing is unprecedented. We began to think about what research evidence has to say about change in the voluntary sector.

Broadly speaking there tends to be two prevailing narratives about change in the voluntary sector. Firstly, there is a narrative of necessity and transition, involving regular exhortations for third sector organisations to adapt to the changing operating environment, and to become more ‘business-like’, accountable, transparent and/or impact focused. Secondly, there is a narrative of jeopardy and loss, from those who perceive threats to the independence and distinctive ethos of third sector organisations largely as a result of funding pressures and professionalisation. Although reaching opposing conclusions, both are based on similar assumptions about the fundamental nature of third sector organisations and their relationships with the external contexts. Organisations are assumed to be fairly passive products of their ‘environment’: change is framed as arising from external forces against 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 volunteers, trustees, staff, managers, service users and other stakeholders, with access to different resources.

Wanting to address this gap in evidence, we have recently launched a new study to develop new understandings of change in the making within the third sector. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant ref: ES/N010582/1) and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, over the next three and a half years we will be exploring questions of who directs change and how change is contested and experienced by different stakeholders within and around voluntary organisations.  We are interested in: 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 extent to which future change is directed by past experiences. 

We are particularly excited about the research as it builds on our previous Real Times study, which followed the fortunes of a set of third sector organisations from 2009. By the end of this new study we will have been researching these organisations for approximately 10 years, creating what we believe to be a unique, longitudinal, qualitative dataset on voluntary organisations.  

We hope it will strengthen our understanding of the influences that shape change in voluntary action, as well as contributing to practical action for third sector organisations. As the research unfolds we will be blogging about some of the cases, the changes they are experiencing, and emerging findings.