Blind people and elephants, hunting snarks below the radar and peeling onions
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Blind people and elephants, hunting snarks below the radar and peeling onions

Nesta has funded several different data-driven projects, designed to tell us more about the numbers and characteristics of below radar groups in the social economy. I want to make some general points about these projects and the approaches they are taking.

I’m not the first academic to use the three metaphors in my title but I may be the first to combine them. In the story of the blind people and the elephant, several people separately touch different parts of the elephant’s anatomy without being able to see it in its entirety; they each produce very different descriptions of the beast. Lewis Carroll’s poem, the Hunting of the Snark, describes an expedition into misty and uncharted waters, guided by the most vague of maps and with highly subjective information about what the mythical creature, the Snark, looks like. And peeling an onion, a process associated with lots of weeping, is familiar to social science researchers dealing with complex layers of reality. These all seem relevant to the task of mapping grassroots social innovation.

I came to these projects with a background in research on the formal, organised and regulated third sector, albeit with plenty of practice in looking for “below radar” organisations during the Northern Rock Foundation’s third sector trends project, where we assembled large numbers of local listings and cross-referenced them against lists of charities and other non-profits. So with that in mind, here are a few questions for the teams to think about:

What is an organisation?

What features need to be satisfied in order for us to recognise an organisation as an entity? One proposal defines a group as an entity with at least two members. While the phrase “when two or three are gathered together in my name” may have scriptural authority, this seems a fairly low threshold likely to overestimate the extent of organisational activity going on. On the other hand the methods used may also underestimate the degree of formal organisational activity taking place. Crowdfunding and grantmaking data imply some organisational formality (a bank account) and at least minimal visibility (on the assumption that crowdfunding implies a web presence). An organisation with a charitable income of £5000 would be above the threshold for charity registration. So BTR groups may well be lurking just below the surface, rather than being genuinely undetectable.

What are these groups empowered to do and what expectations do we have of them?

If the assumption is that they are going to pick up responsibilities such as running public services, we should recognise that many will be unincorporated associations. This limits their powers in terms of holding assets or employing people, as Debra Morris has argued. So while we may successfully identify them, let’s not run before we can walk: many will be some way off taking up such roles, and we shouldn’t expect too much in the short term. There is a wider question there, which is whether we are interested in total numbers of organisations, or particular types of organisations (e.g. those deemed to be “innovative”, or capable of particular tasks).

How do they relate to the formal third sector?

A long tradition of sociological research most recently exemplified by Robert Sampson’s Great American City project, in Chicago, has demonstrated the importance of the formal voluntary sector in underpinning community mobilisation. It will therefore be interesting to explore what relationships there are between the entities found in this research and the formal third sector.

Don’t forget the public sector and other sources of/bases for social innovation

A problem with the rhetoric of “charity deserts” is that it assumes the absence of charities means an absence of social action. Such activity could be taking place through public sector agencies – e.g. local authority-run community centres, or within innovative public services departments. So I’d like to see more acknowledgement of the public sector, both as a source of innovation in its own right, and also as providing venues within which other groups can operate. This poses a particular challenge for those projects contemplating the mapping of lists of organisations. The proposals talk about linkage to lists of regulated third sector organisations but source listings will need to be expanded to pick up public sector agencies. This substantially increases the scale of the mapping and matching that needs to be done.

How will we know which methods work best?

The answer is probably not, at least from this suite of projects. The teams are emphasising different elements of activity although there is some overlap between some projects. But we can’t compare the results because the methods are not being applied to the same entities of the same geographical areas, and because there is no objective source against which to verify their findings. The hope is expressed that the results can be compared with some form of local knowledge to reveal what proportion of BTR organisations are” discovered” by these methods, but the answer to this is inevitably going to be a partial one and it would be worth considering whether to focus several bids on one community to discover what similarities and differences there are in the results.

So let the Snark Hunt commence; let’s see what parts of the elephant’s anatomy are recognised; and let’s hope that peeling the layers of the onion doesn’t result in too many tears for the researchers. I look forward to seeing how the projects develop!

John Mohan


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John Mohan

John Mohan is Professor of Social Policy, University of Birmingham, and Director of the Third Sector Research Centre ( His current research is focussed on the contempor…