Cover of the report - Ten Years of the Third Sector Research Centre

This year we marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Third Sector Research Centre with a highly-successful day conference at Birmingham Voluntary Services Council in February. Now we publish a retrospective view of the Centre’s activities so far.

In Ten years of the Third Sector Research Centre, we reflect on the origins of the Centre and its development over time. Our five years of core funding (to 2014) came from ESRC, the Barrow Cadbury Trust, and the Office of the Third Sector. 

We were the first such centre, and a key early focus was therefore reviews of the evidence base, and of data resources, leading to significant efforts, in partnership with high-level sector bodies like the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), to construct quantitative data sources to allow us to capture change. Some of these have outcomes that we hoped for but which we knew would take time to mature, like this major piece in the American Journal of Sociology on organisational dynamics.

We also embarked on major programmes of research in key substantive areas, and our anniversary volume describes some key findings from these – though space prevents exhaustive listings of everything. Details of some of our current and recent funded projects at Birmingham are available here. In our brochure, we include references to results from a number of large-scale projects developed out of the initial programme of TSRC by colleagues who were early-career academics when working for us but who have now proceeded to more established and senior posts. The critical mass of TSRC staff is still evident at the principal international research conferences in the field; we remain the largest British contributor to these.

We also consider the wider impacts of the Centre. This is a field in which narrowly instrumental notions of impact are difficult to apply because of the sheer range of organisations, with diverse missions and interests, which comprise the sector. Nor were we conceived as a source of managerial fixes for the dilemmas faced by individual organisations – though engaged research by TSRC staff has explored with stakeholders the practical challenges of demonstrating the results of their activities, and offered lessons which have led to improvements in practice. Nevertheless we claim impacts of various kinds. Our high national profile has raised the level of public debate, via numerous appearances in the national media and citations in debates in Parliament and in other arenas. Our work on the evidence base has underpinned publications of statistical compendia by NCVO that are consulted by tens of thousands of users, while our analyses of public funding for voluntary organisations contributed to the allocation of £100Mn of public funding to the voluntary sector in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. Our work on salaries of senior charity staff has given the sector robust ammunition with which to rebut claims of excess remuneration. Our terminology has entered the user lexicon, such as the term “the civic core”, which, in emphasising how much voluntary work is done by small (unrepresentative) subsets of the population,  encapsulates important issues about civic stratification. And user organisations tell us how much they value our long-term programmes of qualitative work, giving them a real sense of the process of change. 

Given this track record we know that our work is highly valued by third sector stakeholders, and we were therefore not surprised – though of course delighted and honoured – that our tenth anniversary event was booked out within days. In our anniversary report we give a flavour of the discussions on the day, which included important reflections on sector priorities. We are flattered that the incoming CEO of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Karl Wilding, has described us as a “fantastic catalyst for research” in the field, and we hope we can continue to live up to such a ringing endorsement.