Investing in research to champion the role and work of small and local charities

Our Research and Learning Manager, Alex Van Vliet goes through the importance of investing in research, championing small and local charities and the findings from our 2021 report, The Value of Small in a Big Crisis.

Click on the image to learn more about 'The Value of Small in a Big Crisis' report and read the full findings.

Last month, the Foundation launched The Value of Small In A Big Crisis, a report based on new primary research looking at the role of small charities in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It tells the story of how in 2020 small charities went to extraordinary lengths for their communities in the face of an unprecedented economic, health and social crisis.


Undertaken by a team of academics crossing four research institutions and led by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, the study visited four local authority areas across England and Wales: Salford in Greater Manchester, Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire, Wrexham in North Wales and Ealing in London.


It is the second time that the Foundation funded these group of researchers to look in-depth at each of these four communities. In 2018, their first study, the Value of Small, found that small and medium-sized charities – those with an annual income between £10,000 and £1 million - were a vital and distinctive component of the social and economic fabric of communities across England and Wales.

The first is that investing in research – documenting independent evidence of an extraordinary period – was an important part of our strategic response to COVID, pursued with the same urgency as our direct financial and non-financial support to our grantees.

Seeking to understand in-depth how small and local charities reacted during the first national lockdown and through to the autumn, this new research showed how:

  • Small and local charities’ distinctive role put them in the best place to respond to this crisis, they ‘showed up and stuck around’ using their position of trust for the most vulnerable in their community when they were needed the most.
  • These charities have created social, economic and added value for their communities and demonstrated greater absorptive and adaptive capacity through their resilience.
  • A thriving and resilient population of small and local charities with the absorptive and adaptive capacity to respond to different types and scale of shock should be an explicit goal of public policy at a national and local level.

Being able to bring this study to fruition has been satisfying for lots of reasons, not least because it’s a really good report! I want to highlight some here.


Our research

The first is that investing in research – documenting independent evidence of an extraordinary period – was an important part of our strategic response to COVID, pursued with the same urgency as our direct financial and non-financial support to our grantees.

As part of our objective to champion the role and work of small charities, we had already invested in a small - but hopefully vital! - portfolio of research.

In April 2020, the policy, communications and research team at the Foundation brainstormed ways that we could respond to the crisis - our early conversations with charities during the first national lockdown revealed the extraordinary lengths they were going to meet the needs of their communities.

Investing in research is one way that we can support a thriving population of small charities.

We are privileged as an independent funder to be able to move quickly to opportunities - we were equally fortunate to have worked with a research team who recognised that same opportunity.

Secondly, it has been a chance to fund longitudinal qualitative research. By revisiting the same communities and case study charities used in the original 2018, the research team were able to quickly re-establish contact and conduct fieldwork at speed.

Revisiting and testing original findings

Equally, it allowed us to revisit and test the conclusions of the original study in the light of the pandemic. The framework of social value for small charities developed in the original study described the distinctive trust, embeddedness in community and flexibility of small charities – all strengths that characterised their response to the pandemic.

Too often, research is a one off activity – and produces reports that sit on the shelf. That can also mean that the charities, local government officers and community leaders who give their time and energy to contribute end up feeling that research is something “done to them” rather than “done with them”. We were delighted that so many participants from the first wave of research were able to contribute to the second study, and hope the research does justice to their work.

Influencing change

Finally, we hope the report will give power to the elbows for those pushing for greater recognition and support for small charities, at a time when there is a window for real change in the sector.

Within the #BuildBackBetter movement, there is a recognition that the ways that resources are allocated in civil society – contract-driven, competitive and transactional – are no longer fit for purpose. Evidence is a necessary but rarely sufficient condition for winning the argument, so we hope that this report finds itself on the desks of those who can make the shift.



We’ve already had fantastic feedback from charities on how well it reflects their own experience of navigating the pandemic. Many are using the report to open up conversations with local decision makers about the future role of the voluntary sector. If you’re able to use the report in your own work, please get in touch as we would love to hear the difference it has made.

The Foundation will continue to explore opportunities for funding and supporting that align with our aims for championing small charities.

Read the latest reports from the Foundation

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