“Don’t be the Uncle that only comes to see you for Christmas!”: improving researcher engagement with the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise sector in social care research

Jenny Harlock and Sophie Wilson

The NIHR (National Institute for Health and Care Research) and BVSC set out why it’s important to involve the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise sector in health and social care research, and how researchers can improve their engagement with the sector going forward

The challenge

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.

What did we do?

The NIHR Research Design Service and BVSC held three listening events with the VCFSE sector and social care researchers in 2022 - two cross-regional and one national. The events were supported by the NIHR Research for Social Care programme team and wider NIHR Research Design Service regions. 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.

What did we learn?

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!”

What does good engagement with the VCFSE sector look like?

Key good practice recommendations we heard from participants at the events were:

  • Engage VCFSE organisations early in the research process to ensure research plans are feasible and reflect the priorities of people that use VCFSE services. Researchers could contact their local Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) for the VCFSE sector to find out about local organisations and start networking. Researchers could also hold research ‘cafes’, ‘drop-ins’, or forums in existing community spaces to facilitate conversations with VCFSE organisations.

  • Consider how research findings will be shared and used by VCFSE organisations from the outset when developing proposals. Outputs could be co-designed with the VCFSE sector to make sure they are meaningful and can be used by VCFSE services and communities to achieve change through the research.

  • Both researchers and VCFSE organisations need to get better at costing VCFSE involvement in research. Researchers need to recognise the time and different types of activities that VCFSE organisations are likely to undertake to support their research – such as networking activities, developing community-facing materials, supporting people that use their services to take part in the research, and supporting dissemination and impact.

  • There needs to be dedicated time and space for relationship building with VCFSE partners within research projects. This could include mentorship or peer-to-peer training to enable VCFSE organisations to maximise their contribution and value to the research process and build researchers’ understanding of the sector.

  • Co-production needs to be meaningful and based on an equal sharing of power to shape the research. This can be facilitated by engaging VCFSE organisations as co-applicants or co-leads early on and sharing decision-making. Importantly, each partner needs to recognise the unique skills, knowledge, and networks that the other brings to all stages of the research process.

You can read the full recommendations and learning from the events in the Full Report and Summary Report.