Impacts take time to realise
“The pathways to impact for this research are ongoing. You can fill out an impact report after a year, but to fully capture where the pathways can take you may take many years.”
- Professor Irene Hardill, Northumbria University
“If you are doing participatory empirical research you are thinking about your pathways to impact from the very start,” explains Professor Irene Hardill. “Before you can submit your grant you have to identify your research partners, understand how to reach them and be clear on what you are going to deliver and what they will get out of it and get their support, in principle, to ensure that the data collection proposed is feasible.”
Professor Hardill is Director of the Northumbria Centre for Civil Society and Citizenship. She is experienced in leading multi-disciplinary research teams and has a particular expertise in conducting participatory research with the voluntary sector. She has had a series of research projects that have sought to understand volunteer motivation and the role of volunteers in voluntary and community sector organisations.
She began working more interactively with research participants during her first grant with voluntary organisations in 2004. During data gathering individual volunteers and paid staff at the participating voluntary organisations became very engaged with the project, much more than she anticipated.
When you are conducting research with organisations - voluntary, public or private - it is important to give back and contribute something to their knowledge as well as your own
This experience led to a fundamental shift in how Professor Hardill approaches her research and has opened further funding opportunities, as well as having an impact on how volunteers are recruited on a local and national level.
It is essential when working with voluntary organisations to build trust and credibility and to demonstrate what is in it for the organisation and the volunteers that are giving up their time. “There has to be a contribution to their knowledge as well as to social science,” says Professor Hardill.
She recalls that during her first project she was surprised at the level of interest and engagement with the project from the voluntary organisations and volunteers. Her and her team received a number of unexpected requests to speak at AGMs and Boards of Trustees meetings. “At the end of project we held a dissemination event in the case study community and we were overwhelmed by the number of people who attended, both locals, as well as people from further afield. It was so gratifying to see that our project had been so relevant to them.”
Professor’s Hardill’s hard won trust and close working relationship with the voluntary organisations she works with means that on a local and national level she often quickly sees the impact of her research: organisations are motivated to examine their working practices and policies and incorporate the research findings into a process of change.
Her first local study has also led to an ongoing national relationship with Age UK and further research to evaluate volunteering in rural areas and another project looking at older volunteers.
However, it was a press release issued by the ESRC press office that helped to broaden the national attention of Professor Hardill’s work. The press release was a catalyst for a number of unanticipated pathways. Following coverage of her research in national news outlets Professor Hardill was contacted by what was then the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), now part of the Equality Commission. Professor Hardill met with them and provided case studies that were used in a guidance document ‘Recruiting, Retaining and Developing Disabled Volunteers Guidance for Volunteer Opportunity Providers’.
“Press releases are so important and a press release from a research council carries such a lot of weight,” says Professor Hardill. “ Having your research in the mass media offers a level of national exposure and brings your work to the attention of influential people you just don’t have access to on a daily basis.
“What I learnt from that experience was how important it is to have a variety of dissemination methods at your disposal.” She has since added Twitter and blogs to her dissemination toolkit. “Social media is just another way of reaching out”.
Professor Hardill stays in contact with the voluntary organisations she worked with and is regularly asked to speak at AGMs. This helps to maintain awareness and interest in her research and will often open new research opportunities. Speaking at an AGM recently led to an invitation to feature her first voluntary sector research project in a regional BBC TV documentary.
Institution: Northumbria University
Funding council: ESRC
Professor Hardill's Profile
Knowledge exchange article