Running a small arts charity working with public sector services can be daunting. You’re trying to make a difference with a specialist and somewhat niche offer. At the same time there is an ‘outside world’ spinning around your projects that you are trying to affect, and which in turn, can impact on your work.

It would be easy just to focus on the immediate, localised benefits of your projects. But ignoring the complex world around them – from national debates on ideas and policy, to the lived experience and environments of the people you work with – could potentially hinder your development, limit how effective you are, or stop you realising how widely your impact is being felt.

More than one way to research

This doesn’t have to be the kind of heavy-duty academic research some organisations do for lobbying and advocacy purposes, resulting in surveys and studies. Small charities often simply do not have the capacity for this. Instead, embarking on research can be as simple as defining a list of key ideas and phrases to guide your information-gathering (you will probably have many you already know are key, and some you are interested in exploring).

Charities usually operate within a specific realm, from domestic areas such as the care sector or housing and homelessness, to universal themes like human rights. For each, there is a shared language and shifting landscape of ideas, funding, policies and priorities to learn. For example, the arts and health/wellbeing sector is currently intersecting with the national conversation about mental health and dementia, and ‘social prescribing’ and prevention are hot topics.

By signing up to the mailing list for as many relevant think tanks, charities, governmental departments, media outlets, articles, journals and organisations promoting the arts in health and wellbeing, you’ll immediately begin to see the bigger picture. This sort of research, that which enables you to contextualise your offer in your social and political world, can have a whole host of benefits for an organisation.

Strengthening your argument

Perhaps the most impactful way research can make a difference is through informing how you frame and promote your offer to stakeholders. For charities working with care professionals, showing your approach embodies ‘person-centred care’ and makes basic personal care tasks easier outside of your project fulfils a genuine need ‘on the ground’ and demonstrates an understanding of their everyday workplace challenges. This in turn, can help encourage engagement on their part. At the same time, speaking the language of managers by placing your offer at Tiers 1, 2 or 3 of the relevant health or social care model can help get your foot in the door with the decision-makers who have the power to green-light your proposals or projects.

Research can also be of benefit if used to inform predictions of what the likely trends in your sector will be. We are living at a time of political juncture: a new government has promised huge social upheaval but how will this play out in respect to the most vulnerable in our society – those we are committed to caring for? We know the number of people living with dementia is set to rise, the population of adults with learning disabilities is growing and early years achievement is ever crucial while the heath, care and education sectors have buckled under funding and workforce pressures during a decade of austerity. In a constantly shifting landscape of national and regional priorities, it is important not just to be aware of what is happening right now, but what is anticipated around the corner.

Keeping abreast of the wider conversation and having a solid grasp of both trends and the language being used in relevant field means you can tailor it to be meaningful to your target audience. This is made all the truer if your organisation has been effectively delivering relevant activities for many years.

The ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders using knowledge gained from research also applies to fundraising. For small charities with limited capacity, writing effective fundraising applications can be crucial – and the competition for funding is strong. You can’t underestimate the importance of contextualising an application with up-to-date, relevant evidence, as you can’t assume the person reading the application is as knowledgeable about the need for your work as you are. Being immersed in day-to-day project work means it’s easy to forget that a small charity’s specialist offer is not on the average person’s radar. By offering a strongly evidenced application incorporating key findings from independent research and reports in a targeted and succinct manner, there is a greater chance to convince funders of the wider social benefits of your project and, ultimately, secure more vital funding.

Opening doors

Researching effectively can not only reinforce your knowledge, but open new doors for you too, providing opportunities to extend your reach and actively support your partners outside the boundaries of any individual project, through sharing best practice.

Being aware of ongoing studies gives you the chance to contribute, as can keeping an eye out for platforms through which to champion the achievements of the people you work with. Similarly, being aware of the conversation in the media relating to your subjects means you can jump in whenever you have something relevant to add. This can elevate your public profile in an often-crowded space, where there are often many small grassroots organisations doing innovative work in the same field.

Moreover, research can alert you to organisations which share a similar vision, and are serving the same needs, albeit in different locations or regions. This can enable you to capitalise on a world of collaborators, partners and supporting organisations, all of which can be learned from, but that you might not become aware of were it not for your research.

Discovering relevant initiatives taking place is also an opportunity to learn from them. They may also have resources or information that could inform your approach, creating a chance to reach out and see if you could mutually support one another (such as signposting relevant inquiries to them). When working in a new and growing field, whether through promotion of one another’s work, running collaborative events or delivering joint projects, research can play a key role in identifying opportunities to join forces and increasing your organisation’s capacity.

Being able to invest some time, money and resources in research like this isn’t something every organisation can necessarily do – or would even consider. Yet it’s potential to inform your thinking, communications and approaches should make it a priority for any organisation looking to develop and grow. Fundamentally, it means you can talk the talk, as well as walk the walk. For small charities trying to raise their profile and cut through the noise, this is crucial.