Social Research Methods and Research Practices > Social Research Methods
Across the world, charities and voluntary organisations face increased public expectations of transparency and, perhaps relatedly, increased requirements to file annual reports with regulators. This reporting includes not only financial data, illuminating the financial position and sustainability of these organisations, but also, critically for this sector, a range of (non-financial and narrative) performance information that can help us to evaluate these organisations’ progress towards their missions. In many countries this data has also become more accessible: often publicly available at no cost from regulators and/or other intermediaries.
In this chapter we argue that annual reporting data represents a potential goldmine for researchers seeking to understand the fundamentals of voluntary organisations and the sector at large, especially for organisations registered as charities. We reflect on our own ‘journey’ in researching an article using content analysis of annual reporting data to understand international regulatory approaches. A key aspect of that journey involved building on past research in the area for our research design. In this chapter we use this example and other recent research to highlight opportunities and challenges for further research.
We use the term content analysis loosely to cover a range of analysis types of information that may take a variety of forms, including quantitative and qualitative information. This chapter does not seek to redefine content analysis – the following sections demonstrate that the term is used quite broadly in prior research. Content analysis is widely used in for-profit (‘capital market’) studies, with researchers often utilising large databases and statistical methods to search for explanations of cause and effect.
Visual methods – those methods that utilise photography, video, drawings, art and other similar materials – are underused in research on voluntary action. This is despite such methodological approaches gaining widespread recognition across the social sciences, arts and humanities as important ways of documenting the full gamut of human social experience and being shown to break down boundaries between researchers and participants (including vulnerable or disadvantaged populations). Visual approaches offer ‘complex, reflexive and multi-faceted ways of exploring social realities’ (Spencer, 2011: 35), and ultimately make statements that cannot be made solely with words (Harper, 1988: 38; Gauntlett, 2007: 106).
In this chapter we discuss two separate studies we have conducted separately with our colleagues Angela Eikenberry and Beth Breeze, which utilised visual methodologies to explore the representation of need in charity fundraising and advertising materials. These studies offer comparative insight into what charity beneficiaries (children in India, and homeless people in the UK) think about their representation, and how they think the services they benefit from should be illustrated.
This chapter first explores the nature of visual methods and examines how and why they have been underutilised in voluntary sector research. The main body of the chapter will then focus on the role visual methods can play in helping us to research and understand charity advertising and fundraising materials, which is important because these visuals are often the way in which most people see, understand and engage with the work of charities to which they are not direct beneficiaries.
The purpose of this chapter is to draw on experience doing collaborative philanthropy research, specifically on giving circles or giving collaboratives (GCs), to argue for doing practically relevant and critical research despite the potential challenges, such as philosophical and political tensions.
GCs are collaborative forms of philanthropy in which members pool donations and decide together where these are given. They also frequently include social, educational and engagement opportunities for members, connecting them to their communities and to one another (Eikenberry, 2009). One example of a US-based GC is Washington Womenade, which holds regular volunteer-organised potluck dinners where attendees donate $35 to a fund that provides financial assistance to individuals (primarily women) who need help paying for things like prescriptions, utility bills and rent. In 2002, a Real Simple magazine story (Korelitz, 2002) on Washington Womenade led to the creation of dozens of unaffiliated Womenade groups across the country. This article also inspired Marsha Wallace to start Dining for Women, which is now a national network of more than 400 chapters across the US in which women meet for dinner monthly and pool funds they would have spent eating out, to support internationally based grassroots programmes helping women around the world. Another example of a GC in the UK is BeyondMe. It started in 2011 in London, made up of small groups or teams of young professionals affiliated with a particular corporation (for example, Deloitte or PwC) who select a charity or social enterprise with which to partner for the year, providing funding and professional pro bono support. Members of the team give £15 per month, with total funding to the beneficiary organisation amounting to between £3,000 and £5,000, and volunteer support of around 150 hours.
As we outlined in the Introduction, this volume is an effort to encourage scholars in the field to focus on methodology rather more than at present. Our hope is that it will start a conversation about how we can best research and understand the myriad different forms of voluntary action across the world. Given the numerous books, journals, articles and reports devoted to exploring new facets of giving, charity and voluntary organisations, it seemed strange to us that methodological debates appear to take place mostly in disciplines rather than the field itself. This book has presented a rich compendium of methodological innovations, and the challenges that different researchers face in gathering, using and explaining their data, in different approaches. By taking the case study approach, we have shone a light on new and modified approaches that leading and emerging scholars are taking in applying different methods to our field. The study and practice of methods is, in our view, very much a lived discipline, as it is much easier to understand and grapple with the use of a methodological approach in practice as opposed to seeing it described as a dry process. Hopefully, the cases presented here will offer inspiration for your work, which in turn abets replication and validity to a new approach, as the twin projects of Dean and Bhati have done.
We have seen calls in the last 10 years, from policy makers and organisations in the voluntary and community sector alike, for particular types of measurement when it comes to the impact of voluntary action.
In social science and economics it is a widely held notion that volunteers not only contribute goods and services to others but also benefit themselves. Indeed, it is frequently assumed that people would not contribute goods and services to others unless they somehow benefited or profited from the exchange (Musick and Wilson, 2008; Smith and Wang, 2016). While social scientists typically consider the personal benefits of volunteering as being unintended consequences of action initially guided by other motives, economists frequently assume that the expectation of benefits is an important part of people’s motives for volunteering (Andreoni, 1990).
While there is widespread agreement in the literature that volunteers benefit from their actions, there is little agreement on the nature, extent and distribution of these benefits. Some social scientists have suggested that the benefits of volunteering are manifold and diverse, including emotional, social, health and labour market benefits (Musick and Wilson, 2008). Other social scientists have argued that the benefits of volunteering ultimately reduce the ‘positive experiences’ that people from dominant-status groups enjoy when they act in accordance with socioculturally approved norms (Smith and Wang, 2016: 638). Economists have frequently argued that people can be understood as ‘impure altruists’, meaning that while they may choose to volunteer in part because they want to do good for others, they simultaneously do so because they want to experience a ‘warm-glow’, referring to the feeling that people experience in their bodies and minds when they are emotionally satisfied (Andreoni, 1990)
Ethnographic research is widely used across social research disciplines examining the voluntary sector, yet the output- and impact-driven culture that directs many research agendas can lead to the value of qualitative modes of inquiry being overlooked. It is helpful therefore for voluntary sector researchers to understand the key uses of ethnography as a qualitative research tool. Drawing on an interpretivist approach, this chapter will outline the utility of ethnography when undertaking a participant observation in two different charity shops. The case study illustrates the importance of immersion within the research setting in terms of recording and analysing ‘natural’ interactions and behaviours. It also explores the issue of access, the role of researcher reflexivity and how micro-level ‘shop floor’ studies of voluntary cultures can serve as a critical measure against data-driven assumptions about contemporary charity work.
To begin, this chapter will provide an overview of ethnography and interpretivism as a methodology, before focusing upon how interpretivist participatory research (and its relational and reflexive aspects) and thick description (Geertz, 1973b) are useful tools to better understand the social world. I will illustrate these with evidence from my own ethnographic study into professionalisation in charity retail operations (Fitton, 2013). In the interest of brevity, this chapter will focus predominantly on the contribution of participant observation and fieldnotes as a valuable method for voluntary sector research. However, semi-structured interviews also formed an important part of this project (see Chapter 2 of this volume for a discussion of the utility of semi-structured interviewing) and ought to be of interest to practitioners or academic researchers considering a multimethod ethnographic approach.
‘Methodology is destiny’, wrote Rooney, Steinberg and Schervish (2004). As a reflection on their finding that when individuals are given more detailed prompts they better recall their previous charitable giving and volunteering, their three-word phrase sums up a central point about social research: if you ask better questions, you get better answers. Do the methodological groundwork, think through the possibilities, put more in, and you get more out. More impact. More esteem. And, most importantly, more understanding of our social lives and worlds. It seems fascinating therefore, that within the study of voluntary action (more on that term shortly), while the phrase ‘methodology is destiny’ has been applied twice more in our field (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2006; Li, 2017), research into voluntary action rarely seems to engage directly with issues of methodology. Obviously, academic and research debate happens between scholars all the time – discussions around the most appropriate dataset to use, or the best coding software or the right way to phrase a question about giving in a national survey – but methodological debates in the non-profit and voluntary action research networks and published reflection and learning are, in our view, relatively scarce.
This surprising lack of attention was one of the inspirations for putting together this volume on researching voluntary action. While all researchers give focus to methodology when collecting data or conceptualising their studies, considered and detailed methodological reflection and advice is generally lacking in voluntary action research journals (although we note that in the two to three years during which this volume has been in development that landscape has started shifting, with developed Research Note sections and special issues).
Pop culture messages, specifically those on television, shape our perceptions of the activities taking place in the real world. We absorb cultural messages each time we engage with media. Television and movies have been used to teach leadership through Game of Thrones (Yu and Campbell, 2020), ethical decision making through The Good Place and The Avengers (Bharath, 2019; Meyer, 2020) and the ins and outs of local government through Parks and Recreation (Borry, 2018). Similar to Pautz’s analysis of US government portrayed across Academy Award-winning films (2017), I looked broadly across television series to discover how volunteering is portrayed and the messages we absorb. A dataset of 131 television storylines of volunteering was developed for two analyses: one exploring what volunteer managers can learn from television portrayals, and the second capturing the paradox of coercive or mandatory volunteering.
Television messages offer more uniformity and longitudinal consistency than other pop culture messaging, such as social media and film, because they offer space for character development, and characters have a greater number of experiences. Television storylines as data allow us to capture multiple views of a single voluntary act or series of acts from the volunteer, the volunteer supervisor and the beneficiary. We can also observe the volunteers’ discussions with friends and family and their inner monologues. These conversations provide us the opportunity to view and interpret the voluntary act itself.
Television provides insight into how society views volunteering and is an interpretive, and even fun, way to study behaviour (McKee, 2003).
Peer research is a method that supports people who have ‘lived experience’ of the research topic to be involved in the research process (Logie et al, 2012). This chapter introduces peer research as an engaged approach to researching voluntary action. As a voluntary action researcher I have been working within and alongside voluntary agencies for 20 years, both within the voluntary sector and within a university context. This chapter has emerged out of my work on a number of evaluation research projects. As well as providing some practical guidance about how peer research can be designed and put into action, I discuss the potential strengths and challenges of the method, drawing on examples of both good and challenging practice from my work. As part of a research team, I have been on a journey of learning ‘on the job’, and this learning continues.
Before delving into the ‘how to’ of peer research, it is useful to understand the context of the approach; co-production within the voluntary sector; and how research communities can learn from and incorporate a co-production ethos. The aim is not to disappear down a theoretical rabbit-hole but, rather, to consider what these broader, underpinning considerations mean for how we approach peer research within a voluntary sector setting without slipping into issues of tokenism, or unsatisfactory research processes and outcomes.
The insights presented within this chapter are born out of several evaluative research programmes that I have been involved in as a researcher within the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.
The behaviour of voluntary organisations, and their willingness to be accountable, is a pressing policy issue around the world. In the UK, for example, legitimacy and public trust are under threat, due to a recent spate of high-profile voluntary sector crises and scandals, including concerns about large-scale and pervasive instances of financial mismanagement, intrusive and potentially harmful fundraising practices and the abuse of vulnerable beneficiaries. Concurrently, charity regulators are in a state of flux, dealing with declining or stagnating budgets and grappling with new strategic priorities to become data-led organisations. Understanding the nature, extent and impact of risk is therefore of considerable importance for the field, sector, public and policy practitioners.
This chapter reflects on the methodological implications and challenges associated with using regulatory data to study risk in the voluntary sector. In particular we describe collecting, operationalising and analysing the large-scale, often complex, administrative data held by regulators that are necessary to study this topic. Drawing on numerous examples from a multi-year programme of research on the UK charity sector, we outline both the promise and the perils for researchers embarking on their own research.
The nature of risk in the voluntary sector is broad, and derived from the panoply of operational areas and decisions inherent in running organisations: ‘Financial, personnel, programme and capital expenditure decisions all entail risk because they involve interactions with changing, complex, volatile or intrinsically stochastic economic, political and social environments’ (Young, 2009: 33).