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Policy&Practice Annual Report 2023

The last two years’ research work has led to a lot of productivity with report writing on a range of projects.  We’ll be a lot quieter in 2024 as preparations are made in the run up to the seventh iteration of Third Sector Trends in 2025 and further analytical work on existing data takes place – especially in relation to the voluntary sector’s contribution to local health and wellbeing.  The Borderlands research project will continue into 2024 and it is anticipated that a report on the findings will be published in late summer/early autumn.

Here’s the link to our annual report on our work,  connections and publications in 2023:Policy&Practice Annual Report 2023

The contribution of the charity sector to health and wellbeing in the Home Counties

Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West VCSE Health Alliance partners have commissioned a research report from Tony Chapman and Jonathan Wistow of Policy&Practice at St Chad’s College and the Department of Sociology, Durham University. The aim of the report is to produce a clear picture on the structure, purpose, energy and impact of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West in a comparative context.

The analysis will help to inform policy and practice debate by providing detailed analysis of sector strengths by considering: distribution of sector energy, financial robustness, workforce dynamics, quality of relationships with other sectors, partnership orientation and business confidence.

The project will complement two other studies on the role of the VCSE sector in supporting local NHS Integrated Care Partnerships (see previous news story). Each study is based on areas with very different characteristics. In Yorkshire and Humber, the study focuses on two metropolitan combined authority areas. While in Cumbria, the study is centred on a relatively spatially separate town and country area.

Collectively, the studies will collate data on the structure and activities of the VCSE sector in over twenty locations, of which 16 are designated as NHS Integrated Care System (ICS) areas. In Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West, analysis and interpretation will be especially challenging because boundaries between ICS areas are more blurred and permeable due to the proximity of Greater London. This produces complex travel to work area flows which means that resident populations can be quite different from the working population.

With comparative data to hand on statistical ‘neighbours’ and ‘strangers’ it should be possible to determine where VCSE sector operations are similar, irrespective of local circumstances and where they are different. This will produce clear messages for NHS Integrated Care Boards and Partnerships on where the transferability of policy initiatives which concern the VCSE sector are sensible and where locally oriented approaches should be adopted.

Third Sector Trends 2022: emerging findings

The sixth iteration of the Third Sector Trends Survey ran across England and Wales this summer producing a nationally representative sample with 6,070 responses.

We’ll be looking at the structure, purpose, energy, finances, relationships and impact of the voluntary and community sector in the coming months. But to begin with, a briefing report has been written to provide some tasters on things that will be explored later in greater depth.

Big representative studies that are regularly repeated help to show the effect of major events such as the Coronavirus pandemic or the current cost-of-living crisis. And often the findings can be surprising.

As can be seen in the chart below, larger charities have come out from the pandemic quite well financially but smaller ones were more likely to struggle.

Early headline findings about the financial confidence of the voluntary sector can be compared with previous rounds of the study. Compared with 2019, it looks like charity leaders’ confidence has bounced back. When we did an interim study in the depths of the Covid crisis (June 2020) we found that only 13 per cent of organisations thought that income would rise in the next two years.

The complete analysis of the data from Third Sector Trends will take many months. Results will be published in regular briefings and reports. But you can find a briefing on the early headline findings here.

We asked people who had taken part in the survey, if they’d like to tell us how things are going, now that the results had started to come out. Here are some examples (some quotations have been edited to preserve anonymity using [square] brackets). If you have read this page once before, new stories from charities appear at the top:

“[We] operate within and around the Carlisle area, we deal solely with young adults between the ages of 16 and 25 years of age. Our main focus being the prevention of homelessness with that age group. Like many cities and towns up and down the country, [our medium sized city] does have a problem with suitable accommodation for many of the underprivileged groups or individuals. and there is very little support in the area, or likely to be. We have noticed the need in our client base to extend the age of support and that the difficulties are becoming more complex with the cost-of-living issues, and the impact of the COVID pandemic on the well-being of a number of people. What we see is more difficulties being presented but less face-to-face, so we have adapted to using facebook and the telephone to resolve a number of issues. The lack of face-to-face itself is a complex issue in that, as a supporting agency you are never quite sure if people don’t want to come or that their social anxiety is hitting new highs. With our client group I believe it is the latter. And to counter this, we offer counselling.”

“Our work is evolving from mainly working to resolve social isolation and improve people’s wellbeing to now needing to focus on how we can help people focus on their core needs such as heating and eating. We are working to figure out how we can best address these issues – but we may have issues around our capacity and are concerned for the wellbeing of our staff and volunteers who are working with these issues front line.”

We are working in challenging environments which are becoming even more complex with the cost-of-living crises when we have not yet fully come out of the Covid-19 Pandemic. There is a reduction of funding available for groups to apply for or not enough core funding to support organisations who are struggling to provide much needed local services. Many of our projects are time expiring and there is not enough replacement funding available to keep much of the good working going.”

“We are busier than ever now and it’s a real challenge”

“We’re doing pretty well- we’re doing lots of training for new members, which is good!”

“We are doing well – the staff team is excellent. That said, we have a fairly substantial gap in our budget (largely for salaries) this year – we do have funding applications in, in progress and planned, and it’ll be OK… but it’s a constant challenge! We also haven’t yet properly costed the impact of ‘cost-of-living’ – this will have an effect on staff, too.”

“Covid dealt a hard blow to membership and income generation, and the projects that we could undertake. We are recovering.”

“We are a mental health charity working with people in a deprived part of the country. We deliver a range of services aimed at improving mental health, preventing crisis and developing resilience. We face a challenging funding environment with competition for funding higher than ever and rising costs. We face a recruitment crisis like many places but it is enhanced by our inability to pay market rates. The NHS trusts instead of working alongside us and investing in our skills and community knowledge seem intent on pitting themselves as our competitors in a bid to justify their own income streams.”

“We have just re-opened after the pandemic. We are on a reduced timetable due to loss of many volunteers. We are trying to gauge the demand for our services after a two-and-a-half year closure.”

“Housing development in this area of the South West has increased phenomenally. This has pushed agricultural land prices up and put land purchase beyond our reach. We are an environmental organisation and are dismayed at the Government’s war on nature. The removal of European protections for wildlife and our environment is depressing for our members.”

“We have now stabilized our number of third age member numbers which are now slowly increasing. There is still some concern over Covid issues from some.”

Stable and becoming financially sustainable.”

“With a lease responsibility for the building we are experiencing difficulties with the cost of energy and heating.”

“The operating environment right now is far more challenging than at any time during the pandemic. Statutory thresholds are so high that demand is escalating to levels that are not possible to respond to in the VCSE sector and much of that demand is not best-fit with our services. Far too many people with severe and enduring mental health challenges and people in real emotional crisis are being referred to counselling and therapy services when they are not in a position to be able to begin a therapeutic healing and recovery journey. They need crisis support, stabilisation and, in some cases, medical intervention. They are being pushed from pillar to post which is re-traumatising. The system around us is spiralling downwards and is breaking. With future prospects of cuts and continued under-investment this will only get worse. The story is the same for any charity we speak to that is trying to support victims and survivors of abuse and violence or other vulnerable individuals.”

“Tough. Retail sales down. Room hire okay but people don’t want any increases in fees.”

“We are currently in negotiations to join up with another group which would help both our groups in different ways.”

“For [our charity], the past five years have been a real struggle. There has been no funding available from the local City or County Council. The whole of the COVID period was a huge disappointment – especially trying to force vulnerable adults to use on-line learning from home. These adults barely have money to buy food and are reliant on food banks and during the COVID period their Universal Credit was cut by £20. These adults (many who cannot read or write English) were forced to look for employment and prove to the job centres that they were actively looking for employment. Yet, centres like ourselves were forced to close and not provide the basic services that we provided in the community.”

“The Energy crisis has encouraged people to take up our energy services. Unfortunately, we are a micro charity and have no paid employees, it is difficult to keep up with the demand. Funding is so difficult to find.”

To find out more about how Third Sector organisations manage to keep going through difficult times, see our latest report: Going the distance: how Third Sector organisations work through turbulent times – St Chad’s College Durham (

Going the distance: how Third Sector organisations work through turbulent times

There’s a good deal of nervousness amongst leaders of Third Sector organisations just now about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their ability to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. Inevitably, these worries also make them think hard about the wellbeing of their own organisations.

Third Sector Trends has been tracking sector mood every three years since 2010. We started at a time when the impact of the 2008 financial crash was still rebounding around the economy. By 2013 government had adopted dramatic austerity policies which were tearing into local authority budgets. In 2016, the survey returned to a nation convulsed with excitement or anxiety about Brexit.

By 2019, thankfully, things were looking better in the economy and government was talking about ‘levelling up’ and investing heavily in ‘left behind places’. But little did we know that Covid would turn everything upside down again by spring 2020. And now the big worry is the cost-of-living crisis and an uncertain economic future.

The voluntary sector has had to contend with its fair share of problems since the financial crash of 2008. In an in-depth study of a representative sample of 50 organisations over the last 15 years in North East England and Cumbria, Third Sector Trends has watched how charity leaders navigate their way through choppy waters.

The latest report, Going the distance: how third sector organisations work through turbulent times, has just been released.

Money talk

How can Christian organisations obtain the money they need whilst holding on to their principles? How vigilant should churches and other Christian organisations be about the provenance of money which they receive through donations, grants or from investments?

Professor Fred Robinson of Policy&Practice was awarded a Leech Fellowship to look at how Christian organisations think about money, particularly money that comes from sources that appear to have values that conflict with a Christian ethos. 

The problem of ‘tainted money’ has recently been generating a good deal of controversy in relation to the sponsorship of arts, culture and sport. There are also some lively debates about university endowments and the legacies of slavery. Christian organisations will get increasingly drawn into these issues — and they should have something credible to say about the positions they adopt and the actions they take.

You can find the most recent publication from Fred’s work on this topic here, published in August 2022 by Reform

Voluntary sector dynamics in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly

Policy&Practice has published a new report on the structure and dynamics of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly. The research builds on work from the Third Sector Trends study and draws on data from a wide range of sources including the Charity Commission Register and the Office for National Statistics. The study was commissioned by Voluntary Sector Forum Cornwall and NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group.

This report shows that Cornwall and Isles of Scilly has a large and productive VCSE sector. The sector is comprised of around 2,500 registered organisations and there may be as many as 3,250 additional small, local informal unregistered groups working under the radar of official statistics.

The VCSE sector in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly has an income of about £219 million. This is drawn from a wide range of sources such as contracts to deliver public services, grants, self-generated earned income, gifts and donations, investments and subscriptions.

Organisations within the VCSE sector employ large numbers of staff. There are estimated to be over 4,500 full-time and 5,000 part-time employees – this amounts to 6,000 full-time equivalent staff. The VCSE sector comprises about 4 per cent of all employment in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly

Volunteers play a vital role in sustaining the activities of the VCSE sector – and especially so in smaller VCSE organisations. Over 70 per cent of volunteer time is delivered in small VCSE organisations (with income below £50,000). The biggest organisations (with income between £1m – £25m) only account for about 4 per cent of volunteer time.

VCSE sector activity is estimated to produce a multiplier effect of £387 million of tangible economic, fiscal and use value and £250 million of additional intangible value. It is estimated that the VCSE sector produces a ratio of 3.6 to 1 added social and economic value relative to the energy injected.

The full report is available to download here

There is also a shorter report which can be downloaded here

The contribution of the voluntary sector to health and wellbeing in Humber, Coast and Vale

Policy&Practice has been commissioned by the Humber, Coast and Vale Health and Care Partnership to provide robust intelligence on the work of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE).

Its aim is to inform debate on how to enhance understanding of the impact the VCSE makes through formal partnership working arrangements, by delivering services under contract, and by undertaking activities of a complementary nature that sustain or strengthen the health and wellbeing of the local population.

The area studies includes the following unitary local authorities and county council districts: East Riding of Yorkshire, City of Kingston upon Hull, North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire and the unitary authority City of York, together with six of seven North Yorkshire County Council Districts: Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough and Selby.

The analysis builds on work published in 2021 for West Yorkshire Combined Authority, together with the Health and Care Partnerships for West Yorkshire and Harrogate, and Humber, Coast and Vale, Yorkshire Sport Foundation, Community First Yorkshire, and Two Ridings Community Foundation.

This research aims to dig deeper into the available data on VCSE sector activity in Humber, Coast and Vale Health and Care Partnership area in order to explore the purpose and extent of support provided and to find out where such support is distributed. It is hoped that the report will help inform debate about the role the VCSE can or should play in supporting health and wellbeing in communities.

In area context, the final report will explore the extent to which VCSE organisations engage directly with local authorities and health organisations by delivering public services under contract and engaging in formal partnership working arrangements.

Early analysis indicates that formal contracts to deliver public services only represents the tip of the iceberg of the overall contribution of the VCSE sector. Consequently, the research will  also looks at less direct contributions that VCSE organisations make to public health and wellbeing by working on issues such as building people’s confidence to manage their lives, tackling social isolation and improving access to services.

The final report will be published in February 2022.

The Structure, dynamics and potential of the voluntary sector in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly

Policy&Practice has been commissioned to undertake a statistical analysis of the structure, dynamics and impact of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly by Voluntary Sector Forum Cornwall and the Cornwall Clinical Commissioning Group. The work is taking forward analytical approaches recently developed in a study in Yorkshire and Humber


The research. which is being undertaken by Professor Tony Chapman, provides an opportunity for comparative analysis with Cornwall’s proximate neighbours and also statistical neighbours in the North of England. This helps to show how the area is different or similar from other areas which share a range of characteristics.

The purpose of the work, from a commissioners point of view, is to examine the current capacity of the local VCSE, but also to look at its potential to engage further with the strategic ambitions of Cornwall Council and local NHS health and social care organisations.

The research will be published in February 2022 and will be followed up with an online event to debate the findings and their relevance to current and future policy initiatives with VCSE and public sector stakeholders.

Why do community businesses choose to take on below-cost contracts?

A new study for Power to Change, published this week, reveals that community businesses often sign up to deliver public service contracts in the knowledge that they will make a financial loss. The authors of the study, Professor Tony Chapman and Dr Tanya Gray of Policy&Practice at St Chad’s College, Durham University, said the trend was driven by the community business sector’s commitment to social and financial success when judging contract values. One CEO said:

‘We’ve gone for certain contracts that we feel are crucial to our community. We provide services to people who have quite complex needs. We might not be making any money on it, the reality is that we’re contributing about 12 per cent. But we think it is so important, that we’re prepared to do it because nobody else could do it properly at this price.

’Professor Tony Chapman, who co-authored the report, said:

“The trend is not down to acts of financial desperation, nor that community businesses are complicit in a ‘race to the bottom’ in contract pricing. But community business leaders knew that if profits on contracts were out of the question, then they’d have to make up the difference from other aspects of their trading to sustain vital services.”

Resolving these pressures is virtually impossible for community businesses. So the onus is on local public sector organisations to be more realistic about contract values. But that is easily said in the current fiscal climate. And even though Chancellor, Sajid Javid, announced in this September’s Spending Review that ‘austerity is over’, what this really means is that, at best, things will get no worse.

Suzanne Perry, Research Officer at Power to Change, said: “This research gives us excellent insight into the extent to which community businesses are sacrificing in order to keep local services open in their neighbourhoods. Additionally, the report reveals what adept business people they are – utilising their income to make the place they live better.”

There’s little to be gained by pointing at Public Services (Social Value) Act of 2012. The reality is that public sector bodies need an enormous boost in funding to bring them anywhere near back to where they were in 2010. In the meantime, local public bodies should be applauding community businesses which keep services going in their communities – rather than to assume that they’ll continually be willing and able to do ‘more for less’.

Striking a balance: How community businesses build effective working relationships with public, private and third sector organisations, by Professor Tony Chapman and Dr Tanya Gray. Published 18th September 2019.

Click here for Tony Chapman’s Blog on the report

Click here to download the report