NPC staff members

An ode to qualitative research

By Rosie McLeod 29 January 2016

Can we have a shout-out for qualitative research? Right now, it seems like the well-kept secret to service delivery success.

Qualitative research is an essential part of understanding impact, and is particularly suited for learning and improving as you go. You may have quantitative figures to suggest you have made a difference, but without good qualitative research to supplement it the picture is not complete; qualitative research gives you a much more detailed understanding by showing how the impact occurred, how it could be repeated, and the factors associated with success and failure.

I’ve recently started working with charities, having moved from public and private sector research. At the moment, it feels like there’s a wellspring of insight that’s untapped by many charities working today—we’re surrounded by opportunities to gather and use qualitative data that are not taken up or carried out properly.

Qualitative research is often misunderstood, and there has been a failure to recognise its value. It’s been labelled  vulnerable to bias, and reduced to ‘illustrative work’ or at worst, to offer ‘cases’ that serve as little more than puff pieces. In fact, used well, qualitative methods force organisations to ask the hardest questions, changing the way they see and perform their work for the better.

An in-house survey we conducted in 2013 as part of a joint project with Clinks found that ‘conducting qualitative research about your impact on service users’ was the area charities felt was most important to them, yet it was also an area they felt least effective at. We also worry that large charities that do systematically gather data aren’t making the best use of it. So there’s clearly an appetite and a need for building capabilities, which is why we produced our newly published paper Listen and learn: How charities can use qualitative research.

This looks at why combining qualitative techniques with lighter-touch quantitative data is an insightful yet achievable approach that charities could benefit from. We know that many charities already use informal, anecdotal research to develop services and get feedback on them. Improving the rigour of that work through better sampling and analysis should help them formalise an approach to learning, bringing order to what they are doing and increasing the validity of their findings.

It can also help keep beneficiary voice central to a charity’s strategy and to its approach to programme development and impact assessment. This helps develop more effective programmes, as they are shaped by users; and more broadly, it keeps the organisation in touch with those it aims to serve, which keeps it on mission. Qualitative research can be about giving users an authentic rather than a tokenistic voice, and is about reaching those who don’t usually volunteer themselves to be consulted.

Qualitative research methods have a role at all stages of a programme cycle, drawing users into service design, refinement and evaluation, and helping staff and leadership with their own reflective practice and strategic thinking.

So, qualitative research, how do I love thee? Well, I won’t count the ways, because counting is what quantitative research is for. Instead, take a look at Listen and learn—it’s something of an ode to qualitative research and the value it could bring to charities. Our hope is that it will help charities realise that through some relatively simple steps, they could start to make better and  more use of qualitative methods across their organisations.