Peak Research Experience

Sometimes my career as an independent researcher delivers ‘ beyond my wildest dreams’ experiences. Last Tuesday was one of those times.

I spent much of last year working as independent research adviser to a national Commission on the Future of Third Sector Infrastructure, set up and resourced by NAVCA.  For those outside this field, the ‘third sector’ includes charities and social enterprises, community groups, co-operatives, community interest companies, and so on – everything that isn’t the ‘private sector’ (profit-making companies for personal gain) or the ‘public sector’ (tax-funded public services).  The ‘infrastructure’ of this sector is made up of the organisations and functions that support charities, community groups, and other organisations in setting up, managing, and when necessary winding down their businesses. This is particularly important for charities which, in the UK, must all – by law – be run by groups of unpaid volunteers. As there are over 160,000 officially registered charities in England and Wales, and over half of those have an annual income of £10,000 or less, most are not in a position to pay for the support they need. It is also essential for community groups, most of which have no funding at all.

If you’ve lost interest by now, you’re not unusual. Although third sector organisations fulfil a lot of our society’s needs, they, and particularly their infrastructure, are often all but invisible to the naked eye. Of course people will see charity shops, will know about the big hitters – Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam, Red Cross, etc, as well as their local ‘friends of the park’ or ‘lads and dads footie’ on a Saturday morning. But all the work that goes on behind the scenes, much of it by organisations such as Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres, and Rural Community Councils, is rarely talked about, thought about, or understood, even by people working in the sector.

This has interested me for a long time, so I was delighted to be asked to work with the Commission. And it was a privilege to be present at their discussions. They are a group of intelligent, knowledgeable, independent thinkers. And last Tuesday, the Commission’s report – based on the research I led, and which I was heavily involved in writing – was launched at a House of Commons reception hosted by Nick Hurd MP.

imagesThe reception was in the Terrace Pavilion, the strip of white you can see in the photo which is actually a marquee right by the river. As the visitors’ entrance is on the other side of the House of Commons by Parliament Square, we had to walk through lots of halls and corridors: first a huge mediaeval hall, then big Gothic passages with ornate tiled floors and doors ten feet high, then smaller corridors with green carpets and dark wood-panelled walls. When we arrived, we found that afternoon tea had been set out as a buffet: crustless finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a selection of gorgeous cakes. The Pavilion soon filled up with people happily munching and chatting. When everyone was there and had had time to eat and drink, there were five short speeches: from Sara Llewellin, Chair of the Commission (who is also chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust); Nick Hurd, who was formerly the Minister for Civil Society; Rob Wilson MP who is currently the Minister for Civil Society; Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister for Civil Society; and Caroline Schwaller, Chair of NAVCA. It was so encouraging to hear all three MPs praise the work of the Commission and endorse the recommendations of the report. And it didn’t seem like just a pat on the head; they all spoke knowledgeably and intelligently about the issues raised. This was truly heartening, because it means there is a good chance the work we’ve done will make a real difference to charities and communities in the difficult years ahead.

And my research and writing was praised to the skies! By two of the speakers, and several Commission members who sought me out to congratulate me on my work. David Brindle, public services editor of the Guardian newspaper, made my day – perhaps my year, possibly even my decade – by telling me what a good job of writing he thought I’d done. That meant so much coming from him, a very experienced and highly talented journalist, and no mincer or waster of words.

I didn’t expect any of that when I took the job, or ever. I couldn’t stop grinning after the event. I went to sleep grinning, woke up at 3 am grinning, and had to replay the whole thing in my head before I could get back to sleep again. And that made me grin even more! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I’ll never forget.

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