Researching risk in the voluntary sector: the challenges and opportunities of regulatory data

Diarmuid McDonnell, Alasdair C. Rutherford

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The behaviour of voluntary organisations, and their willingness to be accountable, is a pressing policy issue around the world. In the UK, for example, legitimacy and public trust are under threat, due to a recent spate of high-profile voluntary sector crises and scandals, including concerns about large-scale and pervasive instances of financial mismanagement, intrusive and potentially harmful fundraising practices and the abuse of vulnerable beneficiaries. Concurrently, charity regulators are in a state of flux, dealing with declining or stagnating budgets and grappling with new strategic priorities to become data-led organisations. Understanding the nature, extent and impact of risk is therefore of considerable importance for the field, sector, public and policy practitioners.

This chapter reflects on the methodological implications and challenges associated with using regulatory data to study risk in the voluntary sector. In particular we describe collecting, operationalising and analysing the large-scale, often complex, administrative data held by regulators that are necessary to study this topic. Drawing on numerous examples from a multi-year programme of research on the UK charity sector, we outline both the promise and the perils for researchers embarking on their own research.

The nature of risk in the voluntary sector is broad, and derived from the panoply of operational areas and decisions inherent in running organisations: ‘Financial, personnel, programme and capital expenditure decisions all entail risk because they involve interactions with changing, complex, volatile or intrinsically stochastic economic, political and social environments’ (Young, 2009: 33).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearching Voluntary Action
Subtitle of host publicationInnovations and Challenges
EditorsJon Dean, Eddy Hogg
PublisherPolicy Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781447356707
ISBN (Print)9781447356684, 9781447356684
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2022


  • charity
  • methodology
  • social research
  • voluntary action


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