Data Sharing in Changing Landscapes for the Third Sector

A core strand of Changing Landscapes was sharing data as part of knowledge exchange across the network. The project as a whole comprised a series of linked strategies: data sharing, knowledge exchange, synthesis and review, and secondary analysis. These brought together a new body of qualitative longitudinal and life course research on the third sector, in order to exchange data and knowledge of relevance to the future development of the sector. Sharing these distinctive forms of knowledge across academic and practice organisations provided the foundation for scaling up evidence and creating impact for practitioners, service providers and for wider public policy.

The data sharing strand aimed to explore and promote ways in which a linked collection and assembly of qualitative longitudinal data gathered on the third sector can be used to generate insights to address particular research questions. The questions posed as part of the Changing Landscapes study relate especially to the micro-dynamics of change in third sector organisations as they navigate a shifting policy landscape.

Selected data between two projects in the Changing Landscapes network, Real Times by the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC), and Pathways through participation, by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) with the Institute for Volunteering Research and Involve, were brought together at a data sharing event in the early phase of this project in order to:

  • explore the possibilities of emergent and interpretive analysis of each other’s data in understanding key aspects of the micro dynamics of change in third sector organisations;
  • consider how this exchange might develop and refine the analytical questions for the synthesis and review strand of the project; and,
  • contribute to, and refine, the key analytic themes for secondary analysis.

Seeking consent for data-sharing

Participating projects had to ensure that they had consent for the data to be shared. For Real Times, a qualitative longitudinal project that had always anticipated the possibilities of re-use, permissions had been sought for data sharing and re-use throughout the fieldwork stages. For Pathways through participation, letters seeking consent from participants needed to be drafted and sent out.

Retrospective consent-seeking is a challenging process, raising questions about research burden on participants who may have considered their association with the project to finish at the end of fieldwork and not expected to receive any further communication. Writing the letters so that they contained enough information about data sharing without being confusing and overly wordy was also necessary. And, as anybody who had conducted longitudinal research could testify, tracking participants over time is a methodological challenge. Where participants do not respond, it is necessary to consider how many more times it is appropriate to seek consent. In Changing Landscapes, the Pathways through participation project sent out the first letter, and then a reminder letter. It is notable that out of 10 participants, not all of them responded. All responders gave consent.

Bringing data together

Third sector organisations formed the cases within the Real Times project, whereas the Pathways through participation project focussed on individuals. Before the Pathways project sought consent it was necessary to understand how the data from these different projects could be brought together. Real Times focused on organisations, whereas Pathways was concerned with the unfolding of individual biographies and how and whether these could articulate journeys of participation.

Additionally, for an event of this nature, a small amount of data generates considerable discussion. Therefore, it was essential for both projects to be quite selective in their choice of data to bring to the data sharing event.

Key themes were developed through ongoing discussion between the respective project leads Rob Macmillan (TSRC) and Veronique Jochum (NCVO) prior to the event, based on the key questions underpinning the Changing Landscapes project, and also an intimate knowledge by both project partners of their own data.
These themes included:

  1. Boundaries between paid and unpaid work (including unpaid overtime, increasing volunteer responsibilities, and volunteering outwith the voluntary sector)
  2. Differing perceptions of volunteers and volunteering – from paid staff in voluntary agencies (e.g. as a resource), and from volunteers themselves
  3. How organisations view the ‘commitment’ of volunteers
  4. What is it like being a volunteer – who decides what volunteers do and how is this determined
  5. Selection of volunteers/activists for their particular skills, capabilities and experiences (a class bias?), and coping with rejection.

Project partners looked at their respective datasets for suitable transcripts. Transcripts from Real Times were drawn from three particular case studies based on searches under codes on ‘volunteer’ and ‘human resources/workforce’. Transcripts from Pathways were drawn from a suburban case study area, one of three in the study, based on an initial search under codes for ‘organisational context’ and ‘organisational support’.

Practical strategies for the day

In setting up the data sharing event we were careful to explore key themes in the data already observed by the original research teams, so that we could compare data. These themes also reflected the core interests of Changing Landscapes.

As you will see from Veronique’s article below, part of the joy of undertaking data-sharing between projects is that, as researchers, we become both primary and secondary analysts, and our reading of our own data is enriched. This data sharing process also enables us to generate new insights and questions that, especially in qualitative longitudinal research, we may take forward in new fieldwork, or perhaps bring to our existing data.

Outcomes

The outcomes of the data-sharing workshop are still developing, as analysis from the day is simultaneously informing the synthesis and review strand of the research, and the secondary analysis strand.

Veronique Jochum on Data-Sharing

In July 2014, I took part in a data-sharing workshop at the University of Leeds with the Timescapes team and Rob Macmillan from Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC ). The objective of the workshop was to share a number of interview transcripts from the Pathways through participation project and the Real Times project to explore common themes. The Pathways through participation project was led by my organisation NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) in partnership with IVR (Institute for Volunteering Research) and Involve. As the project manager I really welcomed the opportunity to revisit the dataset and explore how some of our findings might resonate with the findings of Real Times.

These Pathways through participation and Real Times datasets are very different so I was intrigued to see what could come out of the workshop – whereas Pathways through participation is a collection of individual life stories of participation from the perspective of the individual, Real Times looks at the journeys of voluntary organisations over time. Prior to the meeting Rob Macmillan and myself had identified several areas we were interested in exploring further, selected 3 to 5 transcripts each with this in mind and then contacting the interviewees to gain consent.

At the workshop, we rapidly saw that despite the two datasets having very different units of analysis (the individual in the case of Pathways through participation and the organisation in the case of Real Times) our understanding of the data benefited from the rich discussion we had. The key learning point for me was the realisation that the approach to volunteering of organisations seemed largely disconnected from people’s motivations to volunteer – why people might want to engage with them in the first place, but also why they would decide to stay engaged or leave. Of course, it very much depended on the organisation, their activity and size, and what sources of funding they accessed. But, in the examples we looked at in more detail, volunteers were very much there to complete a task, which raised some interesting questions about the boundaries between paid and unpaid work.

This was my first experience of data sharing and I’m pleased to say it was a positive one. It definitely highlighted some very real gaps in knowledge and pointed to further areas for exploration.