What charities and donors would like more research about

New report!demand-vs-supply1

Giving Evidence has been consulting with UK charities and donors to identify the topics in which they would like further research (/ evidence / data) into charities and philanthropy. This was a large-scale and ground-breaking exercise, using a (variant of a) consultation method developed in medical / health research for eliciting from patients and their carers where they would like researchers to focus.  We are today (2nd July 2019) launching the findings, which you can download here

This sits alongside a separate project which we have done to map the existing research around strategic and operational management of charitable and philanthropic activities. A ‘review’ version of the findings and method of that ‘supply’ study are here.

The press release summarises the findings of the two studies.

What we did

We invited input from any charity, foundation, public or private donor in the UK. Through an open ‘crowd-sourcing’ process, including (1) a series of focus groups across the country, (2) two rounds of public, open, online survey, and (3) a workshop, we invited charities, private donors and institutional funders to say where more research would be of most use. The project took over 15 months, and was supported by a distinguished advisory group of funders, private donors, researchers, charity leaders and umbrella bodies (listed below).

What we found

The process produced a list of 24 priority topics, each of which was suggested by a charity or donor, and the list was prioritised by charities and donors. We took fundraising off the table, simply because nobody needs reminding that it exists.

The biggest finding was probably how disengaged charities and donors are from academic research. Half of our survey respondents said that they use academic journal articles ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’, and we heard many views such as “I find that most of the research is very academic and doesn’t reflect the reality of charities”. It [academic literature] is cleverly written and that language is putting me off right away”.

Impact dominates the list. The top 24 questions are dominated by questions about how to measure impact (i.e., research methods), use impact measurement data to improve effectiveness, and communicate better about impact with external audiences, notably funders. Impact accounts for all of the top seven questions; eight of the top 10 questions; and 14 of the top 24.

Beneficiaries feature directly in three questions. One might have expected more.

There were some requests for things that already exist, such as specific evaluations of specific organisations, and for methods to identify the impact of interventions in people’s complex lives.

Surprising omissions included anything directly about:

  • HR management: recruitment, structuring compensation, retention, managing performance. Neither relating to staff, volunteers or trustees.
  • Finance: nothing related to (for example) whether and when to take on debt or how to manage it, managing allocation of risk in contracts, nothing about social impact bonds, calculating the full cost of work, negotiating contracts, whether / when to walk away from contracts (e.g., if the funding is inadequate). This omission is particularly remarkable given how many charities are involved in commissioning processes, which involve determining prices for services and negotiating contracts.
  • Ethics of research, e.g., around human subjects. This is surprising in view of requirements of the new GDPR, and that most charities’ monitoring and evaluation is research on people.
  • Understanding the location, nature and cause of need.
  • Environmental issues.
  • Influencing policy.

Surprisingly few questions concerned running the charity / internal issues: most of the list is about communicating with outsiders, notably funders. Governance only occupied two questions of the top 24.

There was nothing about whether / when to collaborate. Collaboration is on the list of 24 questions only (i) about what aids and hinders it (which is a good question, but not about whether to do it) and (ii) about collaborating to demonstrate impact.

The list of 24 questions is below.

What happens next

Both studies were funded by, and in partnership with, Charity Futures, which has announced plans to create an Institute of Charity at the University of Oxford.

The combination of these maps of the ‘supply’ of existing research and ‘demand’ reveal some priority gaps. The Institute can perhaps produce research to fill those priority gaps, and we hope that other academics will do to. We are well aware that there are other pressures on academics’ resources: we do not think that this list should dictate a research agenda, but do think that it should be an input into a research agenda.

More background

Caroline Fiennes, Director of Giving Evidence, gave a talk recently which describes the background and logic for both studies.


The protocol (details of the research method) for the consultation is published, here.  It was amended in July 2018: the new version is here.

The questions that emerged as top priority

Rank Question
1 What are the best ways for charities to evaluate long-term outcomes?
Joint 2 How can the less tangible impacts of charities be measured for work where outcomes are hard to quantify?
 Joint 2 How can evaluation enable charities to improve what they do, rather than prove they are making a difference?
4 How can qualitative data (e.g., personal stories, case studies) be used to demonstrate impact?
Joint 5 How do grant-makers currently assess their effectiveness? What ways of giving can improve grant effectiveness?
Joint 5 How can impact be captured in a way that is meaningful to intended beneficiaries and other stakeholders?
7 How can impact be measured in a standard way for all charities?
 Joint 8 What are the most effective models for charities to generate non-grant revenue to become financially self-sustaining?
Joint 8 What is the value of the charity sector in comparison to the business sector? What are its strengths and unique contributions?
Joint 10 How can charities better communicate the impact of their work to donors, beneficiaries and staff?
 Joint 10 What makes for good leadership in the charity sector and does this differ from good leadership in other sectors? How does this vary across different sized organisations?
Joint 12 How well are charities working with their intended beneficiaries to influence the charity’s work?
Joint 12 How can capacity to conduct research be increased in the charity sector to improve their understanding of need and to support robust evaluation of their work?
Joint 14 Does the traditional model of governance in charities still work? What new approaches might deliver greater benefits for intended beneficiaries?
Joint 14 How can charities working on the same issue collaborate to demonstrate the benefit of their combined work?
Joint 14 How do charities undertake research, monitoring and evaluation? (i.e., the actual practice and detail)
Joint 17 How effective are the approaches used by funders to monitor and evaluate charities?
Joint 17 How can charities improve their communication of how their money has been spent?
Joint 17 What aids and hinders collaborations between charities and business?
Joint 17 Which interventions are most effective (or least effective) and why, within a charity sector (i.e., for a specific problem, or specific context)?
Joint 21 What are the barriers and enablers to ensure diversity amongst trustees?
Joint 21 What impact has austerity had on the charity sector?
Joint 23 How can the management of small charities be improved e.g., through outsourcing or sharing back-office functions?
Joint 23 How can evidence about effectiveness guide donors to support the most effective work?


The Advisory Group comprised (in random sequence):

Michael Cooke, Give Directly

Sara Llewellin, Barrow Cadbury Foundation

Michele Acton, (then at) Fight for Sight

Carolyn Cordery, Aston University

Jane Leek, Porticus UK

John Mohan, University of Birmingham

Danielle Walker Palmour, Friends Provident Foundation

Adrian Sargeant, University of Plymouth

Fran Perrin, The Indigo Trust

Grant Gordon, Reekimlane Foundation

Véronique Jochum, NCVO

Keiran Goddard, Association of Charitable Foundations

Rob Williamson, Northumberland Community Foundation

David Knott / Maria Nyberg The Office for Civil Society

Tom Hall, UBS

Rob Macmillan, Sheffield Hallam University

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1 Response to What charities and donors would like more research about

  1. Pingback: Why I’ve joined a board of the Flemish Red Cross | Giving Evidence

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