Researching and valuing the community and voluntary approach



Ivan Cooper

Posted: 15 September, 2016

Ivan Cooper is Director of Advocacy at The Wheel, a support and representative body connecting community and voluntary organisations and charities across Ireland. Since 2014, the Irish Research Council has worked with The Wheel in a strategic partnership to provide a structured mechanism to foster and promote engagement and knowledge transfer between researchers, the community and voluntary sector, and into society. To mark our theme for September, ‘Research for a Better World’, Ivan tells us about the importance of research in shaping the work of the community and voluntary sector.

Ireland’s community and voluntary sector touches almost every aspect of Irish life and society, and research is playing an increasingly important role in shaping the sector’s work. But researching community and voluntary groups’ activities is complex, and quantifying their impact can be extraordinarily challenging. That is why there is a need to equip community and voluntary groups with the skills required to develop a mix of qualitative and quantitative research frameworks that reflect the full societal value of the community and voluntary approach.

The community and voluntary sector form a very significant and under-acknowledged part of our social and economic life. Community, voluntary and charitable organisations provide human, social and community services in all key areas of our national life. They are active in many fields, from wellbeing and sport, to literacy and education, to suicide prevention, end of life care and LGBT issues. The sector’s aims and approaches include encouraging community ownership and empowering individuals and communities; assisting with flexibility and collaboration in delivery of key community services; providing a responsive approach to identifying and meeting needs, while working effectively to promote and deliver social cohesion.

In doing all of this, community and voluntary organisations are trying to change things for the better, and make progress towards their vision of how things could be in the future. There is no shortage of vision in community and voluntary organisations! – but there can be a shortage of evidence that describes the current reality for policy makers. And this is where research comes in.

More and more organisations are coming to appreciate the importance of being able to point to key facts in relation to the issues they are working on, and they recognise that it is no longer sufficient to say ‘things shouldn’t be like this, and aren’t we great trying to change things for the better’ – but to instead be able to say: ‘here is the qualitative difference we make in our communities, and here are the key quantitative facts and figures’.

Research, it goes without saying, is critically important to making compelling cases for change; the challenge for community and voluntary groups is to develop a way of presenting the compelling the mix of qualitative and quantitative research that fully reflects the social and economic impact of the work that they do; research that captures the quality, responsiveness, accountability, equity and efficiency inherent in community-led services. But this isn’t easy!  Even basic survey work to identify the key facts and figures relating to an issue is difficult. What’s needed is an initiative to bring together experienced research practitioners and community and voluntary groups to develop compelling ways of researching the significance these groups’ work, to help improve the quality of their work, identify public policy change that would support their work and to enable then to tell the most compelling stories they can about their work.

This is where the Irish Research Council has lead strongly in recent years with its New Foundations Scheme which supports researchers and community and voluntary organisations in research collaborations. The most recent phase of the Engaging Civic Society strand will support small, discrete collaborative projects between academic researchers and a community/voluntary group or NGO. Successful awardees under this strand will develop a research idea or project, test a concept or theory and/or develop partnerships or activities.

When community and voluntary originations are equipped to tell their stories through well thought through research, we won’t have an under-acknowledged community and voluntary sector – but a sector that proudly embodies the very best of our Irish way of doing things. The Wheel is delighted to be a strategic partner of the Irish Research Council’s #LoveIrishResearch campaign. We are looking forward to working with others in the research community to develop better frameworks for demonstrating the effectiveness of the work of community and voluntary organisations – and to ensure that the work of this great national movement is fully appreciated, valued and supported.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.