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Response to Review of A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945

The authors would like to thank Peter Grant for his thoughtful review. We are particularly pleased that he has recognised what we see as the key aims of the book: that it provides survey data for historians, students, policy-makers and the sector itself which will in turn provide better analysis and inspire further research. If students engage with the book in the same way as Peter has – recognising the opportunities as well as the limitations of the data we present – then many a new PhD project will be the result. There is clearly growing interest in the history of the organisations we cover and we would be very pleased indeed if this book served as the starting – certainly not the end – point for this research.

We would just like to raise one or two responses to some of the specific points Peter raises. Firstly, and perhaps inevitably, he lists a number of organisations which we did not cover in our 63 key profiles (though he appreciates our attempts to represent the diversity of the sector). There are actually many more that might also have been chosen. Although we have not been able to undertake the research ourselves, our database of a further 2,000 NGOs does provide the basic details as well as the means by which others might create similar profiles for a whole range of other organisations: www.dango.bham.ac.uk

Secondly, Peter believes our chapter on 13 ‘key players’ is an ‘oddity’. He’s probably correct. We know very well we could have gone on and on with such a list. However, we did want also to point again to the diversity of the sector (hence Mary Whitehouse’s inclusion). And we cheekily thought such a short list might serve another purpose: the non-inclusion of so many significant figures would at least provoke a reaction such that we might get to hear of the career histories of so many more – largely unsung – ‘heroes’ of the sector. It would be wonderful indeed if somebody were eventually to produce a kind of DNB of the voluntary sector.

Thirdly, we are unapologetic in our focus on national organisations. We accept that this does lead to the inevitable biases that Peter correctly points out. But what else could we have done? Sports and leisure organisations do need to be covered, as do regional and local bodies too. But this would have required a far more extensive survey than we had the resources for. We very much hope that this can be achieved in the future, but if anyone wants to do it they should be aware of the scale of the task facing them: the National Council of Voluntary Organisations recently estimated that the grand total of all types of organisation in this sector could be as high as 900,000.

Finally, Peter touches on some of the thematic issues that a data-driven book could not really capture. He mentions, for instance, the professionalization of the sector and the role of charismatic leaders. These are subjects, along with issues such as the relationship to the media, the state, the public and the grassroots, that we turn to in The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain. In this volume we locate an analysis of the sector within a wider social and political history of contemporary Britain. We argue that there has been both a privatisation and a professionalization of political action over the last century. This has created tremendous opportunities for new political players such as NGOs and it has revitalised the ways in which politics takes place. But as intermediaries between the social and political worlds these organisations have their limitations too, ones that are driven by the very logic of single-issue interventions. The book will be out in April with Oxford University Press: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199691876.do

Undoubtedly, many will not agree with our interpretation of the evidence presented in A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain. But at least they will have the data. One of the key principles of our research into NGOs, charities and the voluntary sector was that our results should be as widely available as possible. Indeed, since the research was funded by the sector itself (by the Leverhulme Trust), this simply had to be the case. For this reason, the book really needs to be read in conjunction with the accompanying website. While the narrative does not appear online, all the raw data is available for researchers to download. Moreover, there is much more data available here than what we were able to place in the book. Please do use it. It is all free! It’s at: http://www.ngo.bham.ac.uk/appendix/NGOs_handbook.htm.