Time to think: Navigating Change in Third Sector

Group of partipants at the Time to Think event
Group of partipants at the Time to Think event


On the 22 January 2020, Third Sector Research Centre’s ‘Change in the Making’ research study team worked in partnership with BVSC to bring together a group of Birmingham’s voluntary sector leaders for the first of three sessions exploring issues of change in the third sector. The aim of the sessions is to provide a space for third sector leaders to network, reflect and learn, using findings from the research to stimulate discussion. The first session focused on ‘how change happens in the third sector’.

The workshop was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, through their funding of the Change in the Making research project (ES/N010582/1) which is being led by the Third Sector Research Centre and involves the University of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam University. It was delivered in partnership with BVCS. This note provides a summary of the first session and ideas aspirations for the future.

Think to think: Aims and ground rules

The morning began with a round of introductions, and a discussion about developments within the sector/organisations that currently keep people ‘awake at night’. Discussions focused on issues such as: capacity versus demand; sustainability; the political and policy context; staffing – succession planning, morale, fatigue and/or complacency; disconnects in the systems within which VCSE organisations operate; digital literacy; social media; GDPR; and fundraising.

After the research team provided a brief overview of the Change in the Making study, the group spent some time thinking about what they thought they might get out of these sessions. It was hoped that the meetings would provide a space for reflection, discussion and networking; and that the research findings could provide insights into developments within the sector and that its findings may help organisations/individuals respond to some of the challenges identified.

In terms of ground rules for the group, the following was agreed to be important:

  • Recognising the validity of different perspectives
  • Being confident in sharing confidentially
  • Being allowed to talk to others about what is discussed in the meetings, but not saying who said it
  • Not being defensive, but being open to challenge.

Understanding how change happens in the third sector

The group spent time on their tables sharing stories of their experiences of changes within their own organisations over recent years. Significant, cross-cutting, changes that were highlighted included, for example:

  • austerity, which has increased need and decreased funding (doing more for less)
  • sources of income – finding new sources, less core income; restructuring, including cuts to middle management
  • high turn-over of staff
  • being more creative – thinking differently, diversifying services, searching for new opportunities
  • culture change
  • technological change
  • a growing north/south divide.

The research team then shared insights from the Change in the Making project on how change happens within the third sector organisation. This highlighted both external sources of change (e.g. austerity) and internal sources (e.g. strategies adopted by organisations such as restructuring), and the ‘interpretative spaces’ between.

The team introduced a theoretical model called Strategic Selectivity (by Colin Hay) which suggests that organisations operate within a ‘strategically selective environment’ which favours some organisations and some strategy over others, while also recognising that organisations engage in ‘strategic action’ – they are more or less strategic, more or less orientated to context, and their actions may affect the environment in which they operate. The model is useful in terms of highlighting the role that organisations can play in shaping change, as well as being shaped by it. The group then discussed what learning could come from the research findings and how they would apply the model to help understand how change had come about in their own organisations.

Understanding how change happens in the third sector

After first thinking individually about what they would take from the session back to their own organisations, the final part of the morning was spent discussing the focus of future meetings. It was requested that future meetings were longer and allowed for more time for networking. Suggested themes for future sessions were:

  • Trends in the third sector
  • Governance
  • Leadership / how to lead change
  • Who influences change
  • Technology, data and evidence for change

A decision was made for the second session – to be held on the 27 February 9-1 – to focus on ‘who influences change’.

This was the first of a series of meetings for third sector leaders in Birmingham to be organised by the Change in the Making research team. More details about the research study and team can be found here.