Using administrative datasets to track change in the voluntary sector

This note accompanies a presentation to the Nonprofit Data Virtual Seminar series organised by Alasdair Rutherford at the University of Stirling.

You can also download the slides and listen to the presentation.

My presentation was a summary of some work TSRC has done – often in conjunction with our research partners at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – on data about third sector organisations. The first two slides are about the availability of regulatory data on charities in England and Wales and I also refer to the construction of an extensive panel dataset on the headline financials of charities from the early 1990s onwards; you can view a more detailed description.

There’s a group of slides about working out the geographical distribution of third sector activity, because most often the geographical data we have simply refers to an administrative office of an organisation. The photo shows an old shepherd’s hut maintained by a registered charity in a remote part of Scotland, as an illustration of the reach of a charity, the Mountain Bothies Association, which is located in Scotland but is active throughout most of the upland areas of England and Wales as well. I give examples of how charities relate to administrative units which no longer exist, consider the challenges of developing local authority-level indicators, and link the distribution of organisations to data on volunteering. This is part of a forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A during 2019.

The longevity of organisations is also of interest. Registration data in England and Wales only cover the period post-1961, so dates of registration are not a secure guide to how long an organisation has been around, which in turn might influence its finances and other things. In an attempt to get around this, one of TSRC’s researchers,  Peter Backus (now of Manchester University) developed a method for extracting date information from the governing documents of charities (examples given in the slides) and comparing them. This generated data on charity dates of establishment which go back several hundred years in some cases. Slide 8 compares the pattern for the late 20th century with the pattern of registrations with the Charity Commission, the most notable feature being spikes in the Commission’s early years, and in the early 1990s. you can see a steady process of formation of new charities through most of the 20th century.

Most of the remaining slides are about work we have done to construct databases on charity financial data, including our work with NCVO capturing data from a sample of c. 10 000 charities’ accounts each year. The dataset is public and can be downlaoded. The first graph (slide 10) illustrates an uptick in the proportion of charities reporting a year-on-year reduction in resources of 25% of more, from the late 2000s. The next three are illustrations of work we have done to profile the financial trajectories of charities over time, our argument being that we need to know not just about individual short-term changes, but about how well organisations are doing over a number of years. The sky is not falling in: the great majority of organisations stay in roughly the same relative position in the distribution of charities by income.

The last four slides are from the work of David Clifford, using the data to demonstrate the impact of recession on charity finances, and the impact of deprivation on the likelihood of charity survival and dissolution. In the first case some strong recession-related reductions are evident as is the contrast between a broadly positive picture of growth from 1999 through to 2008 and the subsequent recessionary period. In the subsequent slides the strong spatial gradient between the areas of highest and lowest deprivation is clear; David argues this is likely to lead to strengthening of the inequalities between areas in the distribution of charities. These papers are online in the Journal of Social Policy and the American Journal of Sociology respectively.

The final slide is a cartoon – a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute from the trade press, Third Sector, to our work.