Change in the making: A dynamic and relational landscape of voluntary action

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Third Sector Research Centre


'Change in the Making' is an exciting and unique study of change in the third sector over time. To our knowledge, nothing like it has been attempted elsewhere, and the changes and challenges in the operating environment for the third sector make it extremely timely.

Our project investigates the ways in which change is negotiated, created and contested by a range of different stakeholders in diverse third sector settings. It focuses attention on organisations as contested spaces of collective action, involving the interplay of multiple stakeholders, such as paid staff, volunteers, service users and commissioners, all with different interests. The study will build on, extend and enhance the Third Sector Research Centre's ground-breaking long term 'Real Times' programme of research with third sector organisations carried out between 2010 and 2014.

Change in the Making is a timely study given the challenges facing voluntary organisations at the present time. It will be of great value for those interested in how third sector activities are sustained, and in how third sector organisations adapt to change over time. The 'Real Times' study followed the fortunes of a set of third sector case studies through an unsettled environment, involving a combination of political and institutional change and a challenging financial context, particularly for organisations drawing on public funds to carry out their work. Hence the original research charted the first years of adjustment to austerity.

Change in the Making takes the story forward through three further intensive waves of fieldwork, over four years, with four of the original case studies. In line with the study's aims we deepen the analysis of the longitudinal case studies by broadening the range of research participants at each case study site, and we place their experience in context by situating the case studies within wider field developments. A focus on a smaller number of cases allows us to refresh and deepen our research questions. The longitudinal approach facilitates a longer term perspective on the rhythms of organisational change and continuity. By the end of the proposed study we will have engaged with the case study organisations for nearly ten years from 2010 through to 2019, i.e. surviving through an initial period of austerity, but with uncertain prospects in the years ahead. We know already how these organisations and activities have survived through to 2014, but what happens next, and more specifically how is what happens next shaped by different influences and stakeholders?

The study informs and advances academic debates on conceptualisation of, change in, and the character of, the third sector. It is of great relevance to policy and practice debates because it provides great insights into how change is made and experienced in the third sector on an everyday basis. It develops our understanding of how third sector organisations really work in practice, through its in-depth engagement with individual organisations. No other British study has been able to do this. It informs the development of policy and practice for and in the third sector, by providing real and vivid insights into the everyday dilemmas, pressures and practices of third sector organisational life, and thus shaping more realistic accounts of third sector activities than currently prevail. It extends the study of third sector activities over time and it thereby contributes a unique and innovative organisational dimension to the growing body of qualitative longitudinal work in the social sciences. It has the potential to impact upon third sector policy, practice and discourse: to influence the development of practice through bulding capacity within the third sector and to create conceptual impact through reframing the debate about third sector organisations and their role in society.

Planned Impact

This project will provide a unique qualitative longitudinal evidence base on change in the making within the third sector: on how change is created, contested and experienced by multiple stakeholders. Beyond the academic beneficiaries of this study (particular those involved in voluntary sector studies, social policy and sociology), we will work with and seek to have an impact upon two primary sets of third sector stakeholders:

1. Third sector organisations delivering front line services. Austerity measures and welfare reforms are contributing to a particularly unsettled environment for third sector organisations. Change in the Making will seek to contribute to organisational change processes through building the capabilities (skills, knowledge and confidence) of third sector leaders through providing engaging and accessible evidence of change in the making and through facilitating reflective spaces to think about their organisations and their working practices.

2. The surrounding third sector support architecture, which includes national and local third sector infrastructure bodies (e.g. umbrella bodies and organisations which promote and support voluntary action at national and local level); funders of voluntary action (e.g. Big Lottery Fund, charitable trusts and foundations, commissioners); policy makers (within third sector organisations and within government), third sector-focused media, research and consultancy agencies and think tanks (e.g. IVR, IVAR, NESTA, RSA). Together these bodies seek, in different ways, to support the third sector, yet the evidence base available for them to draw upon remains partial and debates are often underpinned by untested assumptions. Change in the Making will contribute to a reframing of debates about the characteristics and role of third sector organisations. It will also seek to build capacity within the supporting architecture by piloting methods to create reflective learning groups for third sector organisations that could be cascaded by infrastructure bodies and by developing a module to be incorporated into existing leadership development activities.

A longer term aspiration is to have a positive impact upon the quality of life and wellbeing of the many thousands of individuals who engage in voluntary action as workers, volunteers and service users through giving voice to a wider range of stakeholders within third sector organisations and through influencing third sector policy and practice.

TSRC's work to date has had a significant impact on third sector organisations and on debates about the third sector among academics, policy makers and practitioners (see for example, This gives us a strong starting point.

To enhance the quality of the Change in the Making study and its potential impact on the third sector, we will work to involve our stakeholders in all stages of the research, from design through to delivery of the emergent responses. For example, an Advisory Group will bring together nine key third sector leaders to advise on study design and implementation and to help shape emerging recommendations and impact activities. We will establish a wider virtual sounding board and facilitate deliberative workshops to engage a wider range of stakeholders in discussions about the emerging study findings and to help shape analysis, outputs and outcomes. We will draw on the study findings to co-design and co-deliver capacity building activities, including reflective learning groups and leadership development modules. We will also draw on the study findings to contribute to a reframing of the debate about the third sector, to move beyond existing assumptions and single-perspective narratives, through a range of mechanisms including conferences, workshops, presentations and working papers and an extensive communication strategy.


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