Real Times: an in-depth study of third sector organisations over time

working-paper-31Real Times is TSRC’s long-term qualitative research programme following the journeys of third sector organisations over time.

The aim is to see how they work in practice, how they change, how they respond to the challenges they face, and whether and how they might flourish. The research seeks to go beyond single ‘snapshots’ to understand the dynamics of third sector organisations and activities.

The overall aim of the programme is to gain a more in-depth and realistic understanding of how third sector organisations, groups, and activities work in practice over time. This means addressing these key questions:

  • What happens within, and to, third sector organisations over time and why?
  • What matters to third sector organisations over time and why?
  • How might we understand continuity and change in third sector activity?

Research design and structure

There are four main focal points to the research:

Fortunes - What influences the fortunes of third sector organisations?

Challenges - What challenges do third sector organisations face and how do they respond? 

Strategies - How do third sector organisations regard and negotiate the environments in which they operate? 

Performance - How is the 'performance' of third sector organisations understood by different stakeholders? 

The rationale and design of Real Times was developed during 2009 and is discussed in more depth in the working paper: ‘Seeing things differently? The promise of qualitative longitudinal research on the third sector’ (TSRC Working Paper 56, March 2011). 

In its first phase (2009-2013), Real Times worked with a diverse group of 15 core case studies of third sector activities, alongside a wider group of associated ‘complementary’ case studies. Data was generated primarily through interviewing people in and around each case study, but also observing activities and analysing key documents. 

The research consisted of five waves of fieldwork visits – roughly every nine months - to each core case study. The fifth wave was given an opportunity to gain an update on the fortunes of each case study, but also to engage in a two-way feedback discussion about the research findings. The case studies are introduced in the working paper ‘First Impressions’ (TSRC Working Paper 67, November 2011).  


The Real Times research programme coincided with a period of significant economic and political change; a period we characterise as an ‘unsettlement’. Hence the research has followed how case studies have attempted to cope and keep going amidst the prospect of diminished resources, increased demands and changing political priorities. Some case studies have been more vulnerable than others, but they have mostly survived in some form or another. We discuss some of the strategies that case studies have adopted - namely restructuring and redundancies, considering mergers and rebranding - in ‘The third sector in unsettled times – a field guide’ (TSRC Working Paper 109, August 2013). 

Knowledge exchange

The Real Times dataset is a unique resource for longitudinal analysis of the third sector. We are currently engaged with colleagues at the Timescapes initiative at the University of Leeds in an ESRC-supported knowledge exchange project, ‘Changing Landscapes for the Third Sector’, which places Real Times at the heart of a collaborative network of qualitative third sector research studies, all with some form of temporal dimension to their work. The aim is to bring qualitative longitudinal research on the third sector together to enhance dynamic and narrative forms of evidence for policymakers and practitioners working in and alongside the third sector. 

Unfolding tales of voluntary action

A monthly series of reports from the Real Times project was launched in 2014. Unfolding tales of voluntary action began with the story of third sector activities in "Larch" – a relatively deprived village in the north of England in mid-2010. Qualitative data collected for Real Times gives a unique vantage point to observe the main influencers of change, and how organisations respond and adapt over time.

Part One

Divine Intervention The story of third sector activities in 'Larch', a relatively deprived village in the north of England. 

Part Two

'The Boss' Surviving organisational crisis in a family support project: 'Hawthorn'. 

In the coming months this series of short papers will be telling some of the unfolding stories arising from our longitudinal case study work.

Each instalment draws on some of the rich data generated through the research, linking it to wider debates and literature about the sector.

The aim is to add to conversations about the everyday realities of voluntary action in different contexts.

Please send us your feedback:

  • how do your experiences compare with the stories told here?
  • does what you read in these instalments resonate with your knowledge and experience? 

Please email Rob Macmillan, Real Times research lead: 

This series is produced in partnership with the Changing Landscapes for the third sector project at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds. 

Next steps

Analysis of the collected data from TSRC phase one continues and further papers will be published in due course. In the coming months we aim to publish a working paper reflecting on the feedback discussions held with the case studies in wave 5. In addition, we will be developing plans for a possible TSRC phase two of the research programme. 

Research contacts

  • Rob Macmillan – research lead
  • Rebecca Taylor  
  • Duncan Scott - advisor