The voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise (VCFSE) sector has a huge role in delivering social care in the UK. Over 31,000 VCFSE organisations deliver and support social care services nationally worth £3.8bn. The VCFSE sector is an important partner for the NIHR and research community in producing research that improves social care services and the lives of people that use them. However, we know that the sector is sometimes engaged with late when carrying out research, it is engaged with poorly, or it is not engaged with at all.
The Research Design Service held three listening events with the VCFSE sector and social care researchers in 2022: two cross-regional and one national event. The events were designed and hosted in partnership with Birmingham Voluntary Service Council and supported by the NIHR Research for Social Care programme team and RDS regions across England. We wanted to understand the barriers and facilitators to engagement for the VCFSE sector and researchers, differences in barriers and facilitators for small and large VCFSE organisations, and identify good practice recommendations.
Barriers for VCFSE organisations included a lack of time, capacity and confidence in getting involved in academic research, and understanding academic research processes. These barriers were especially felt by smaller VCFSE organisations, who often felt overlooked where researchers had established relationships with larger, more-experienced VCFSE organisations. Other VCFSE organisations meanwhile felt consultation-fatigue from repeated requests from multiple researchers. Lack of sensitivity by researchers to the relationship between VCFSE organisations and their communities, and how this might be affected by their participation in research, was also an issue, as well as being approached late in the research process when priorities had already been set.
Researchers told us they struggled with capacity and competing pressures which affected their ability to carry out quality engagement.
A key message was that researchers and VCFSE organisations want to work together, but that it takes time to build relationships and the mutual understanding that is needed for genuine partnership working. As one of our VCFSE participants told us, “Don’t be the uncle that only comes to see you for Christmas!”
Key good practice recommendations we heard from participants at the events were:
Read the full recommendations and learning from the events in the Full and Summary Report