Depending on what’s involved, the process for gathering useful learning can get called ‘research’, ‘evaluation’ or ‘reflection’, for example. Whatever you call it, the basic steps for gathering learning that’s useful to you are the same.

1. Decide - why, what, who and when?

It can be helpful to ask yourself:

  • Why do you want to do this learning work?
  • What questions do you want to answer?
  • How will this help your project, organisation or community?
  • Who do you want to use it, and what’s the best way to share your findings with this group of people?
  • Who else might you need to involve? (E.g. key stakeholders, the community, staff, volunteers, and the people who use your services)
  • Who else might be interested in your learning?
  • What is already known about this topic? How will you build on that?
  • When do you need this learning by?

Below you’ll find some ideas for things you might want to find out about. You don’t have to do them all – just the ones that will be helpful for you:

  • Find out about your community and what’s going on there
    You might have ideas around what your community needs. But it’s good to challenge that with a bit of research. There’s always more to find out about the people in your community, what’s happening there and why. This could be through your own research or by looking at information that others have collected.
  • Talk to your community, ask them what they think
    Your community is at the heart of what you do. So, ask the people in your community for ideas, so you can help to make those happen. As well asking people for their opinions, gathering information about their experiences and what they want for the future can give added insight. Test out early ideas with them so you can develop them together.
  • Find out how everyone feels and thinks about your project to make it better
    Collect the day-to-day reflections of staff, volunteers, partners and people in your community. You could get some really useful information about what they think should change to help your project grow and develop.
  • Find out if your activities are working
    Collect information as you go to help you figure out if you’re helping to make the difference you hoped to make. This could be stats, stories or a mixture of both.

2. Start thinking about how you’ll involve people

There are lots of ways people from your community can be involved in learning. Think about why and when you might like to involve people from the community in the process. For example, they could:

  • suggest topics that matter to them for research
  • come up with ideas about how to gather information
  • gather information on the ground
  • help to make sense of the information gathered
  • give ideas for how things could be improved based on the learning
  • tell other people in their community about any learning.

3. Plan what information you’ll need and what you’ll do with it

When you’re thinking about what information you need:

  • What information will help you answer your questions? Having a mixture of stats and stories and a range of different perspectives can help you build a richer answer.
  • Do you already have some or all of the information you need? Or do you need to collect any new information?
  • If you need to collect new information, what methods could you use to get you that information? For example you could interview people, do a questionnaire or run some creative group activities. How could you build this into the day-to-day working of your project?
  • Will whoever you want to use the learning find these methods credible?
  • Who will you ask to participate? How will you make sure that a range of perspectives and opinions are represented?
  • Are there any online tools, resources or other organisations that could help you? Check out our own tools and resources page.

When you’re thinking about how to use the information:

  • How will you analyse or make sense of the information, to form your conclusions?
  • How will you share and use the things you learn to develop your project?
  • How will you involve your stakeholders right from the start?

4. Decide who’ll do the learning work

When you’re making this decision, you’ll need to think about whether:

  • You want your organisation, and any partners you might have, to gather the information, make sense of it and identify learning to share
  • You want to pay someone external to do some or all of this work

Advantages of doing the work yourself:

  • You and your staff have in-depth knowledge of how your organisation works.
  • You are sensitive to the needs of your project and its users.
  • It allows your staff to learn new skills.
  • It encourages ongoing reflection and learning, which is more likely make positive changes in your organisation.
  • When done well, it can promote the culture of continuous improvement, trust and honesty.

Advantages of giving the work to someone else:

  • People might talk more freely about the project to someone independent.
  • Someone independent might find it easier to identify areas for improvement.
  • It can avoid conflicts of interest.
  • They can bring additional specialist skills.
  • Some, but not all, audiences look more favourably on externally generated evidence.

5. Make sure your research is ethical and kind to participants

Plan how you will protect everyone’s rights and interests, and their data.

Choose methods that work for the people involved
If you need to collect data from people, think about what you’re asking for. Don’t ask them for extra information you don’t need.

The same goes for staff collecting the information too. Make sure they have a good understanding about the people taking part, to help avoid risk or harm. 

Make sure people know what they’re signing up for
Always ask people if they want to take part in research and give them enough information to make an informed decision.

An information sheet is a good way to do this. Make this clear and simple so everyone can understand it. You can always use these as subheadings:

  • Who we are and why we’re gathering this learning.
  • What we want you to do and how long it will take.
  • We can give support with sensitive questions that could be triggering.
  • We might record your responses or take photos.
  • This is how we’ll use and share the information you give us.
  • You don’t have to take part – it's okay to say no.
  • You can change your mind and stop taking part any time.
  • You don’t need to answer all of our questions – it's okay to say no.
  • Here are your rights under GDPR .

For information on GDPR rights
Have a look at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advice for charities. This might help you tell your participants about their rights.

It’s helpful to get a written record of someone’s consent
This would just be a simple written consent form. It just means that you’ll have something concrete to look back on.

Some people will be put off by having to fill something in though. If that’s the case think about how else you can record that someone’s given their consent to take part.

Getting consent from children, young people and vulnerable adults
The NSPCC have lots of useful guidance around ethics, safety and avoiding harm when doing research involving children.

Make sure everyone can take part if they want to
Think about all of the reasons your participants might not be able to take part. Maybe they don’t have money for transport or childcare. Maybe they need someone to translate.

If we can solve the problem, we should. Paying for childcare, transport or hiring a translator are all things we can and should do in these circumstances.

Involve people in the planning of your research
If you involve your participants right from the start, they’ll tell you about any barriers during the planning stages. And might even offer some solutions so we can make sure the research is accessible.

Think carefully about how you represent different groups
Make sure they’re represented in a way that they’re comfortable with. And think about how to show the views of groups that are often under-represented.

Do all that you can not to cause any harm
Think about what harm people could experience by taking part. And then figure out how you’ll avoid or minimise this.     

Examples of the harm our research could cause, if we’re not careful
Someone’s expectations might be unrealistically raised after you ask them about their ideas for the future. So you should:

  • avoid asking questions about things that can’t be changed
  • be clear on what can and can’t be done with the learning.

Or someone might become anxious or distressed if they’re asked to discuss something sensitive. To help avoid this:

  • train the people gathering the information
  • have the appropriate disclosure checks in place – especially when gathering information from children or vulnerable adults
  • provide support to people before and after taking part – for example signposting to relevant support.

This should link to your wider plans to keep people safe. See NCVO Knowhow for support with safeguarding more generally.

Keep people’s responses anonymous and their personal information safe
It doesn’t matter whether or not people mind if you share their data or personal details - you should still keep this secure and confidential. Have a look at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advice for charities.

Here are some things you can do to keep personal information safe:

  • Store personal details or data in a secure location.
  • Only give access to people who need to use it.
  • Keep participants’ personal details separate from their responses.
  • When using and sharing the findings don’t include details that could give away who they are or what they said.
  • Only use the research findings for the purpose(s) that you told the participants about when they agreed to take part.

The Social Research Association also have further guidance on research ethics.

6. Make sure you have the money and time you need

You’ll need time and resources for:

  • planning and managing the work
  • involving and supporting the people you work with to take part
  • sending anyone on training on research methods (e.g. interviews, focus groups, analysis, evaluation methods) – this is really important to make sure you’re doing the work in a way that’s ethical, legal and safe for everyone
  • collecting data, learning and other information about the project
  • sharing the findings
  • understanding, reflecting, acting on the things you’ve learned.

7. Use what you find out

It’s really important to build in time and money for reflecting on what you find out and for making plans to act on it. You don’t want all of your efforts to go to waste!

Think ahead to how you will do this and who needs to be involved. Who might need to take action? Are there any key decision makers you need to have involved? How will you help them to make sense of the findings and decide what needs to happen?

Involving stakeholders throughout the previous stages can help to motivate them to act on what you find out.

8. Share what you find out

As you learn about your community and your project think about sharing what you’ve learned with:

  • your staff and partners
  • the people you support
  • anyone else you thought would be interested when you were planning your learning
  • your social media channels and your website

Share the findings in a way that is clear and accessible. Make sure that their meaning isn’t changed in the way they are presented.

Share what you’re learning with other organisations and charities
There are probably other charities and organisations doing the same sorts of things and asking the same kinds of questions. You might want to find out how you can share your learning to help them. And if they have any learning they could share with you.

Linking up with other organisations could help you influence bigger changes with decision makers both nationally and locally.

Share what you’re learning with us too
We might be able to share what you’ve learned in our Evidence Library. This would give you a national platform for the work you’ve done. And we can share the things you’ve learned with our staff, so everyone can learn from your experiences.

How to share what you’ve learned
It doesn’t always have to be a report. You can also share videos, podcasts, case studies and infographics, for example. Share it in whichever way best suits you and the people who you want to use it.