Volunteering Research, overcoming the challenges

14 July 2016

When it comes to overcoming the challenges - it's often more about who you know than what you know. 

Image For Vol Co Hb

Photo courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland 

You may have been there – the pressure to produce authoritative research on a sector suffering from survey fatigue, funding problems and a million and one other distractions. It was therefore with some trepidation that Volunteer Scotland took on the challenge of researching volunteering across Scotland’s historic environment sector.

As the national body for volunteering in Scotland, we know a lot about volunteering, but a lot less about our country’s historic environment. It was therefore a ‘win-win’ for us to develop a research partnership with Historic Environment Scotland (HES), who were funding the research, and Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS), a membership organisation with a great ‘reach’ across Scotland’s built environment.

The Challenges

We faced numerous research challenges, but two stand out:

  • The first and biggest challenge was identifying the population of historic environment organisations in Scotland. The sector has its strategy Our Place in Time which clearly defines the scope of the sector, but surprisingly there was no comprehensive database of organisations which we could use. The breadth of the sector exacerbated this problem, as it includes everything from stone circles to historic houses and castles, renaissance gardens, historic townscapes and landscapes; and artefacts, maps and photographs that relate directly to Scotland’s places and history.
  • The second challenge was engaging the sector. We needed historic environment organisations to buy-into the research and lend their support. Our whole research philosophy was based on one of partnership working and collaboration. Very quickly we realised that a traditional research approach was not going to work. We needed the sector to help deliver the research for us! And they did......

The Sector’s Support

We worked very closely with ‘umbrella’ organisations such as Archaeology Scotland, Scottish Association of Preservation Trusts and the Scottish Civic Trust; and representatives from the working groups responsible for co-ordinating the ‘Our Place in Time’ Strategy. They:

  • Helped us identify 1,044 organisations for the population database
  • Cascaded the online survey to their members/associates
  • Personalised the request to participate in the survey
  • Led by example in completing the survey
  • Chased their members to increase the response rate.

However, it was not just quantity we were after....it was also quality. Without their support the research would have been weakened considerably. It would have taken longer, cost more and the quality would have been compromised – in terms of both the breadth and depth of the research. For example, over 90% of the 182 respondents completed the quantitative data on number of volunteers and volunteer hours, compared to c. 70% in a similar study carried out in 2008.

Lessons Learned

What we learned from the research study is that who asks the questions and how the questions are asked is as important as what questions are asked. By working closely with our key partners Volunteer Scotland was able to improve significantly the reach, engagement and quality of its research. For this a big thank is due to our key partners HES and BEFS and to the wider sector which engaged so effectively with us.

For those interested in the research findings, this is the link to the report  Volunteering and the Historic Environment. A detailed critique of the research methodology is presented in Appendix B.

By Matthew Linning 


Matthew Linning matthew.linning@volunteerscotland.org.uk is Strategic Performance Manager at Volunteer Scotland. He led this research and would be pleased to discuss any aspects.

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