Working with the third sector

Never feel shy about contacting an organisation to ask if they are interested in your research: third sector organisations actively seek relationships with researchers, and provided you’ve given some thought to the fit between your research and their area, they are likely to be interested.

Sharon Heal from Digital Media @ Newcastle on Vimeo.

Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, talks about why the Museums Association works with academics

As with any policy engagement, do your research first, and find the organisations whose interests most closely align with yours. There are currently over 164,000 registered charities in the UK alone, so it’s very likely you’ll be able to find an organisation working on specific issues relevant to your research. The better the specificity and fit with your particular research, the more impact it can have. Organisations that represent the sector, such as the National Council for Volunteer Organisations, are good places to start looking, or see the list of UK think tanks in the next section.

Many third sector organisations are very small: in 2014 the NCVO estimated that 48% of the third-sector workforce in the UK was employed at organisations with 25 staff or fewer. This means it can be very easy to get in touch with the people responsible for policy development and communications, who should be your first points of contact. However, as always, emails or briefings should be to the point.

In general, third sector organisations actively seek out academic research that can lend rigour to and provide evidence for their policies and campaigns, so they will be happy to hear from you. In addition, many organisations will be looking for partners in the public and academic sectors they can collaborate with. If you have a project in mind that would benefit from external partnerships, involving a third sector organisation is an excellent way to develop innovative projects and to foster valuable long-term relationships.

Things to bear in mind:

  • Third sector organisations will have well-defined aims in terms of who they want to benefit, what policy changes they want to see enacted, and what their core message is. Your research will need to be in harmony with these aims, and as when working with politicians, you need to be comfortable with your research potentially being framed by and contributing to political debate.
  • Funding is an issue within the charity and NGO sector (think-tanks are less affected): funding and staffing levels are remaining stable, while demand for services are rising rapidly.
  • Remember that any organisations you work with are unlikely to have access to the same level of resources as a university, and they may need to ask for payment for their time and expertise. The Charities Commission found that in 2015, 41% of UK charities had annual incomes of £10,000 or less.
  • Because of the sector’s advocacy role, organisations communicate very differently. They tend to favour punchy, brief, narrative styles over the longer, more objective writing you’ll be accustomed to (see the Communicating for policy audiences guide).
  • Timeframes are likely to be very different: charities and voluntary organisations are interested in facilitating long-term change, but they will also have important short-term goals that will probably demand (much) shorter deadlines than those of academia. Their timeframes will not necessarily fit with the rhythm of the academic year, either.