There is currently a lack of easily-accessible information for those seeking to use the records of voluntary organisations, charities and NGOs in research.
A good start would be the 2022 chapter by Georgina Brewis, ‘Using archives and objects in voluntary action research’ in Researching Voluntary Action – Innovations and Challenges, Edited by Jon Dean and Eddy Hogg (bristoluniversitypress.co.uk)
So how do researchers track down the archives of the voluntary and community organisations they want to use? Any researcher of charity needs to understand that those bodies with catalogued and accessible institutional archives – whether kept in-house or deposited elsewhere – represent only a very small minority of voluntary organisations in the UK. Unsurprisingly these tend to be the larger, better funded and longer-established groups such as the British Red Cross or the Children’s Society. However, there is no guarantee that even the largest charity will have made provision for preservation and conservation of its records (aside from the limited financial data required by the Charity Commission) let alone for cataloguing or access.
Researchers and students are advised to start with Discovery, the National Register of Archives. Discovery holds more than 32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country.
Searching the Archives Hub will find records of voluntary groups where these are deposited at an institution contained on its database – for example, Hull History Centre, SOAS Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham, UCL and the LSE have all built specialisms in this area.
Many researchers will have to seek access to records by contacting an organisation or group founder directly, with variable results. Once you’ve had success accessing the records of one organisation, it may be easier to open communications with others in a related sector. Learning how to negotiate what we can call ‘informal archives’ is a key challenge for researchers. There are multiple ethical considerations and practical concerns that come with using informal archives. How do you track down such records? How do you negotiate access? How do you reference sources? What do you do if you’re concerned about the physical state of records or what might happen to them when a group’s founder dies or in charity office move? How should you reconcile your obligations as a historian with the fact that a particular organisation has trusted you to look at their materials? We recommend drawing up a memorandum of understanding to frame the relationship between researcher and organisations.
It is also worth remembering that records relating to charitable activities can turn up in unexpected places, for example in the archives of private companies. The records of a charitable Trust or Foundation may well contain better sources about a particular charity than the organisation itself has preserved, although again there may be problems of access.
The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund produced a report in 2011 mapping Trust and Foundation Archives provision in England.