Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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Introducing the voluntary sector

1 Data about the voluntary sector

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Figure 1 Getting a picture

There are various sources of information about the voluntary sector in the UK but, as you will discover, it can be problematic getting accurate data on such a diverse sector, particularly as much of it involves small, informal organisations. In Activity 1, Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy at NCVO discusses different types of data.

Activity 1 Collecting data about the voluntary sector

Allow approximately 5 minutes

Watch the following video and make notes on what Karl says about the different types of data the NCVO collects and why they are important.

Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_wk3_activity1_karl_ou_pro_res_master_edited.mp4
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Transcript

Karl
We primarily collect data about charities. We collect data from about 10,000 charities every year from their annual reports. And we collect data about their finances, but also about how many people they employ. And we collect a few other things that you would find in the annual reports. We collect data from other sources as well.
So there is a very large annual survey called the Labour Force Survey where we collect data in there about how many people work for charities, and how much they’re paid, and where they work, and so on. And then, we try and supplement that with qualitative data from interviews, and there are a small number of sort of surveys that come along from time to time. And we try and mesh those together.
If this was any other sector of the economy, the Office for National Statistics would presumably have an army of statisticians doing stuff on this. But the problem with the voluntary sector, or the third sector if that’s what you prefer, is that people tend to forget about it. When you see these big discussions in the media about sectors, it tends to be the public sector do this, and the private sector do that. Nobody talks about our sector.
And one of the reasons for that is because there isn’t a huge amount of data on it. Because a lot of people can’t actually agree on what it is that we’re talking about. So is it the voluntary sector? Is it the third sector? Is it NGOs? Is it social enterprise? What on earth is social enterprise? How do we collect data on that when we can’t even agree what it is?
So we’re trying to do something that informs public policy debates and helps politicians and policymakers design and then implement policy, because they don’t want to do that unless they can see that something is changing. And if they don’t have data about what is changing, they don’t want to design policy for it. Why make the effort?
But also, if you’re working in a charity, I think you need to understand your context. You need to understand why you’re different or you are unique. You might need to understand why you’re the same as everyone else. And you can’t do that without data.
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Comment

Karl highlights how the NCVO collects data using charities’ annual reports, and has a particular interest in finance, the number of people employed and where people work. He also talks about using other surveys such as the Labour Force Survey, as well as qualitative data (e.g. from interviewing people). NCVO attempts to mesh together all the different information in order to gain an accurate picture of the voluntary sector.

According to Karl, the reasons why it is important to collect the data are:

  • Politicians and other commentators have a tendency to forget about the voluntary sector because there is not enough information available on how things might be changing.
  • It is difficult to agree on a definition of the sector.
  • Providing government with more data helps inform policy debates and develop more relevant policies.
  • Voluntary organisations can use the information to assess why they might be different, unique or the same as others.

Building on Karl’s last point about using data, there are a number of reasons why learning more about the features of the voluntary sector can help you in your work or learning. First, if you already work or volunteer with a small organisation, such as a residents’ group, you may have a very different experience of the sector than someone working for, say, Oxfam (which has well-developed human resource practices and huge funds at its disposal).

Second, locating your organisation within the broader context of the voluntary sector provides a focus for understanding how effective and successful that organisation is (and what its future may be). This in turn can help you to assess the impact this might have on your role (if you have one) either as a paid member of staff or as a volunteer.

Furthermore, some organisations are not particularly effective at communicating policy or the reasons for decisions. Issues around change are often difficult to communicate. Examples of change include: an organisation losing a contract, having their budget cut, changing their activities or making staff redundant. If you are involved with an organisation that does not communicate well, then having a broader perspective can help you make sense of the issues that crop up.

If you are not already working or volunteering in the sector but thinking about it, this week will give you a clearer indication of what the sector is like and could help influence your choices and possibly help you at interviews.

If you are interested in doing further learning about the voluntary sector or other similar subjects (perhaps business, management or social sciences) then having skills in understanding and using data will also be useful.

Activity 2 Using data

Allow approximately 5 minutes

Watch the following video and make notes on what Karl Wilding says about how the NCVO data can be used. Highlight which aspects you think would be particularly useful in an organisation you are familiar with.

Download this video clip.Video player: volb1_activity2_karl_ou_pro_res_master_edited.mp4
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Transcript

Karl
There’s a quote from Gordon Moore who used to run Intel. And he said, ‘Every organisation has a map of the world, at which they’re at the centre of the universe.’ And people often sort of think about their own data, and they don’t think about how they compare with anyone else’s. So I think a starting point for our data is that you need to understand trends in your sector. You need to understand how it’s changing so that, first of all, you can situate your data against what is happening more widely. That might lead you on to thinking about things like benchmarking. So if you can find other organisations that are very similar to you in terms of their business model, or in terms of the area of the sector that you focus on, you might start to compare and think, OK, well, are we doing things as best as we can? Organisations, I think, especially need to understand about trends in their sector. I think our data is especially valuable in thinking about what are the really long-term, big-picture trends, and how can we prepare for those? Another quote that I’m really found of is William Gibson, a futurologist who says, ‘The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.’ So some of our data that we have got for different bits of the sector, that might be your data in three or five years’ time. So using that data to try and build up your business intelligence, your sense of where we’re going, I think is especially critical.
If you want to use data to help you understand your organisation, I think one of the first things that you can do is actually have a look at what sort of data is available. So data about fundraising, for example. We know that some organisations use our data as part of fundraising bits. They might be doing needs analysis, or they might be trying to think about who else is operating in an area. And our data will help them understand how many other organisations are doing that. I’d really like people to be able to use our data to understand their organisation by benchmarking themselves against it. And we are trying to get better at producing data that people can then find those benchmarking type clubs, or similar organisations. But it’s not always as easy as it should be. So we’re on a bit of a journey in terms of that.
I think the final thing I would say here is that it never ceases to surprise me how difficult people find it to understand our sector. We talk to media all the time, we talk with civil servants, and we’re a foreign country. Old people tend to understand the words charities and volunteering. And people in government and the media, they still find it surprising, for example, that charities contract with government. They still find it surprising that charities employ nearly 800,000 people. So yes, it might be about understanding your organisation. But I’ll tell you what I’d love people to do. When you’re at a wedding, or a christening, or something like that, and people ask you about working for a charity, use our data to explain to people what the modern voluntary sector looks like.
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Comment

Karl explains how the data is useful in situating your own organisation’s context within a bigger picture. He emphasises the role of benchmarking, which means comparing one organisation’s performance against another’s, or looking at best practice. He also mentions how the data might tell you something about the future of your organisation. Interestingly, Karl further suggests that people should bring the data into everyday usage. In other words, people can tell others surprising facts about how many people are paid staff in the sector or how voluntary organisations contract with government.

As you saw in Week 1, the main defining feature of the sector is its voluntary nature but this week you will look at further features and information about the sector relating to:

  • the size of the sector
  • its contribution to the UK economy
  • the activities carried out by voluntary and community organisations
  • the differences within the sector.
VOLB_1

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