Changing Landscapes for the Third Sector

Understanding the micro-dynamics of third sector organisations is vitally important in times of rapid social change. Changing Landscapes aim was to enhance our understanding of the voluntary sector by bringing together evidence from a network of projects that are ‘walking alongside’ third sector organisations as they navigate a shifting policy landscape.

The Changing Landscapes of the Third Sector project was based in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, with partners in The Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The study ran for one year from May 2013 to May 2014. The study brought together a wide range of new research on the third sector, exploring important questions around how different third sector organizations, and those who work with or for them, have developed and adapted to a rapidly changing economic and social context.

A noticeable shift has occurred in research on the third sector – cross sectional studies that create a ‘snap shot’ of third sector organisations, activities and the individuals involved, have begun to be complemented by dynamic studies that create a moving picture of the sector through prospective or retrospective methods of enquiry. The recent application of qualitative longitudinal (QL) and case history methods in a number of third sector studies is part of this growing trend; distinctive forms of data and knowledge are being generated that can shed new light on how changes in the sector are created, lived and experienced, and that allow current trends to be placed in historical and developmental context. Viewing the third sector in this way is particularly important in times of austerity and sector transformation. Organisations are grappling with the demands of new and often reduced funding structures; greater emphasis on social enterprise models; a changing relationship with the state and local government; increased pressure to demonstrate the difference they make; and changes in the nature of participation. Understanding how the organisations and individuals that make up the third sector are responding and adapting to this changing landscape is vital; the provision of resources on these processes will enable a sharing of practice and experiences that will benefit the sector and those commissioning third sector services.

Based on a national network of Qualitative Longitudinal research projects on the third sector, the project was designed to:

  • Bring together academic and practice based organisations for collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • Enhance the evidence base on the third sector in times of austerity through a programme of archiving, data sharing and knowledge exchange across the network
  • Conduct a review and synthesis of findings across the network, and carry out a secondary analysis of selected datasets, working with key themes of relevance for the sector;
  • Disseminate the findings of this work via a practitioner conference and a special issue of the academic journal Voluntary Sector Review
  • Produce tailored outputs addressed at policy and practice audiences, including a policy report and briefing paper, training materials and web resources, for use by those working in the third sector and those co-ordinating or commissioning third sector services.

The project was led by the Timescapes Data and Methods Service, University of Leeds (Kahryn Hughes and Bren Neale) in collaboration with the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham (Rob Macmillan); and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (Veronique Joachim). Network members were from the Institute for Voluntary Action Research, the Association of Charitable Foundations, and the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier and Strathclyde.

What did the project involve?

This project used a new way of working across different studies that had already been carried out. We followed a very specific plan of action so that the existing knowledge and expertise of network members was brought together in defining key questions, and in illuminating key themes in third sector research.

This plan of action involved the following:

  • bringing data together in a data-sharing workshop
  • bringing project teams together to discuss the main questions their research has raised for them in a knowledge exchange workshop at TSRC in Birmingham (Wednesday 25th September)
  • bringing existing findings together in a synthesis process to look at overall themes and findings
  • bringing two major data sets together in a secondary analysis process so that data have been re-examined in the light of all the new and emerging thinking
  • organising a national conference with workshops for dissemination and feedback
  • consultation with key stakeholders about our project outputs

These activities in the study used new techniques and approaches to secondary analysis, and data archiving for continued use for future researchers developed under an earlier study, ESRC Timescapes, led by Professor Bren Neale.

Our Knowledge Bank is designed as a useful resource for professionals, academics and members of the public who are interested in the work of this project, including volunteers in the Third Sector, or those working in Third Sector organisations.