This chapter will offer advice on using primary sources to write histories of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and voluntary action. NGOs are non-profit, task-oriented organisations made up of people pursuing common interests and goals. Voluntary action encompasses the participation of citizens in all aspects of associational life. Together they make up ‘civil society’, which is best understood as an ‘arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values’ (Centre for Civil Society, 2005). This is often also referred to as the ‘Third Sector’ (existing alongside the public and private sectors).
NGOs range from the small and short-lived (organisations serving a particular need for a particular group of people at a particular moment in time) to the large and long-standing (such as international NGOS with diverse remits). They provide services to their members and to external ‘recipients’. They lobby governments, deliver healthcare to communities, provide voluntary services, and much more. The scale and diversity of the sector is part of what makes it such a productive topic for historians; it intersects with a wide range of important societal issues including gender roles and family values, international diplomacy, national identity, and human rights.
Given the diversity of the sector, it should be no surprise that the kind of source material available varies considerably. It includes that produced within and outside individual NGOs. This chapter focuses on internal and external sources relating to charitable NGOs (those that raise money to provide goods or services to groups that they perceive to be in need of assistance). The majority of the issues and sources that are discussed are still relevant to students studying other kinds of NGO and voluntary action.
The voluntary sector has been characterised as a ‘loose and baggy monster’ (Kendall and Knapp, 1995). Historians use the term to define research on Victorian philanthropy (such as the reform efforts of Charles Booth and Joseph Rowntree in the nineteenth century); the work of modern, professionalised and often international organisations (such as Oxfam and UNICEF); New Social Movements (such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement); and the institutions that make up associational life (ranging in scale from a local club for amateur filmmakers to the thousands of Women’s Institute branches spread across rural England). Both the kinds of research questions historians ask and the methodologies that they employ are as diverse as the sector itself, but there are some key trends that we can observe.
Early histories of NGOs tend to focus on a single institution. They were often written by volunteers and employees of the organisation rather than by professional historians. This was because these were often the only people who had access to organisations’ records, most of which were neither catalogued nor open to researchers. As a result, they are often celebratory and teleological accounts that emphasise the origin story and successes of the organisation. They prioritise fostering a sense of identity for members and supporters over critically evaluating the past (Davey, 2014). This is similar in approach to the brief histories that usually appear in the ‘About Us’ section of NGOs’ websites. These kinds of accounts are problematic as rigorous academic scholarship, but they can be used to gain insight into the values and self-identity of NGOs.
Academic historians also employ a case-study approach, often focusing on a particular organisation in their research. When they do so, however, they tend to be more critically attentive to the failures of NGOs and more interested in how organisations relate to broader societal trends. This kind research is heavily reliant on the availability and accessibility of NGO records. In the last 10 years, increasing numbers of NGO archives have been deposited, catalogued and made available to researchers. This can be a relatively slow process. For example, in 2013, Oxfam donated nearly 10,000 boxes of material to the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. These are gradually being catalogued and opened up to researchers, with the process expected to be complete in 2017. As more organisational records are made available, historians can start to ask new research questions about how NGOs work and what they do. The increasing accessibility of this material has also attracted more historians to the field and this is a rapidly expanding area of research.
There is other work on the history of NGOs that adopts a broader scope than case-study histories, attempting to assess either the sector as whole, or large groups within it such as healthcare providers and religious institutions. The central debate within large-scale studies has focused on the issue of decline. For many, the Victorian era was a ‘golden age’ for associational life and philanthropy. Robert Putnam (2000) – looking at the USA – and Frank Prochaska (2006) – looking at England – argue that participation in civic life has declined since this period. To assess the changing scale and significance of the sector, these studies prioritise quantitative data such as membership and attendance rates, as well as statistics on charitable donations. More recently, scholars have called for simplistic notions of decline to ‘be replaced with an understanding […] of the role of change’ (Hilton et al., 2012). They do not deny that voluntary action ebbs and flows, but argue that we should be more attentive to the adaptability of the voluntary sector. The increased number of case-study histories now makes it possible to draw broader conclusions about the diversity of the sector as a whole.
Historians also study NGOs and voluntary action for what they tell us about many other sections of society, using organisations as a window onto wider issues rather than as an end in themselves. Social historians have used data produced by NGOs to study living standards. Transnational historians have used NGO archives as a way to assess the movement of ideas and people across national boundaries (Thorn, 2006). Cultural historians have researched the role played by NGOs in the production of stereotypes and ideologies (Myers, 2011). These works often analyse how the frameworks through which donors and recipients are represented by charities and NGOs shape public discourses about class, race and gender. For example, those influenced by postcolonialism have used voluntary organisations to think about the construction of racial identities.
To answer their wide-ranging research questions, historians of NGOs draw on a diverse range of source material. The types of source most commonly used to write about NGOs and voluntary action fall into two very broad categories: those produced by the NGOs themselves and those produced externally. Material produced by NGOs includes that intended for internal audiences – such as minutes, correspondence, and memoranda – as well as that intended for external audiences – such as published reports and charity appeals. These kinds of sources have been used to write about how the sector works, how it represents itself, and how it relates to wider societal issues. The records of most British NGOs are held in university and regional archives and can vary dramatically in size. For example, the Christian Aid archive, which is held at the School of African and Oriental Studies, contains 508 boxes of material covering the period from 1946 to the 1990s. By contrast, the archive for Maria Rye’s Emigration Home for Destitute Little Girls (discussed in Section 4) consists of one box of annual reports and a small folder of correspondence. The variability of records has implications for the kind of work that historians do. Problematically, it makes it easy to overlook the role of small, short-lived, or failed NGOs because these tend to leave less of an archival trace than do large NGOs.
Historians also draw on a wide range of external material to contextualise and understand the actions and impact of NGO activity. This comes from a recognition that the voluntary sector cannot be understood in isolation (Hilton and McKay, 2011, p.12). To understand the sector’s relationship with the state, for example, historians have used records held at the National Archives including those of regulating body the Charity Commission, and of government departments whose work intersects with NGO activity, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. To understand how NGOs interact with international governance, historians have used the archives of the League of Nations and United Nations. To understand how the sector exists in relation to the wider public, they have used opinion polls, the press, cultural products such as literature and television, Mass Observation Reports, and ephemeral material relating to public participation on voluntary action. When trying to get a sense of individual (rather than institutional) experiences and perspectives, historians have used diaries and autobiographical accounts, while those working on the more recent past have also used oral histories of NGO staff and participants (for examples of these approaches see Crowson, Hilton, and McKay, eds. 2009). The use of this broader range of sources has been a key part of the move away from more celebratory institutional histories.
There is, however, one avenue of inquiry that historians consistently struggle to find the sources to write about: the experiences of recipients of aid and assistance. While recipients are represented within NGO and state records, the opinions and experiences that are recorded and the terms in which they are recorded are shaped by the priorities of the institution that did the collecting. The difficulty of recovering marginalised voices is not unique to this field of research. Historians of NGOs and voluntary action have drawn on methodologies that are common to ‘history from below’ and postcolonial literary theory to help uncover recipient experiences. This includes reading NGO records ‘against the grain’ – that is, against the intentions of those who produced them – and paying close attention to silences by considering the significance of what the NGO worker, donor, or recipient does not say as well as what they do.
This section has introduced some of the most commonly used sources in research on NGOs and voluntary action. It should not, however, be read as an exhaustive or restrictive list of the sources that can be used to study this sector. This is a rapidly expanding field and historians are frequently identifying and making use of new source bases to suit new research questions.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on three types of source that are used in work on NGOS and voluntary action. It outlines the range of material available in each category and discusses issues relating to the selection, sampling, and interpretation of these sources. As set out in the previous section, these sources represent only some of the material available to historians of NGOs and voluntary action. The type of source you choose to use will depend on the type of research question you are trying to answer.
Most NGOs produce reports that describe the work that they have done. These include annual reports, but also more detailed accounts of specific campaigns and projects. Reports can be very useful for studying the operation of NGOs. They often provide quantitative data relating to income and expenditure, which can be used to make arguments about the scale and scope of an NGO’s work, but they also offer insight into the values that organisations work by. Close analysis of the language that they use can reveal the assumptions that they make about their role and the wider society in which they operate.
Before using a report as a source, it is important to determine its intended audience. Reports that have been written for the purpose of internal accountability and reflection are more likely to include technical language and detailed operational information. Reports that are intended for external audiences usually aim to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the NGO. They are more likely to celebrate successes and use techniques designed to generate sympathy for their cause. As in the case study from Maria Rye’s Home for Destitute Girls [A] discussed in Section 4, they can often read like extended advertisements. This makes them less-reliable accounts for histories focused on the operation of NGOs, but excellent for building up arguments about humanitarian and charitable discourses, and for discussing the relationship between NGOs and the public.
It can be easy to over-privilege reports among other NGO-produced records. Compared to minutes and correspondence, they tend to be clearly organised, concise, and typed (which makes it possible to scan them for particular words or phrases). However, there are several factors that limit their usefulness, and it is important to keep these in mind when you use reports to construct an argument. First, reports prioritise the agency (that is, the ability to influence and affect change) of the organisation over outsiders. Although they may speak on behalf of recipients, they do not necessarily accurately present their needs, wishes, or experiences. Second, reports are summative. Because their purpose is to look back on something that happened, they may purposefully or inadvertently create a false sense of order to the work of the NGO. In pursuit of a succinct and coherent report, the author may have excluded information that they did not deem to be relevant, but that may nevertheless have been useful to your enquiry. Third, and this is particularly true of reports intended for external audiences, they tend to present the organisation as a united front, underplaying conflict and difficulty. If possible, it is often productive to analyse reports alongside minutes and correspondence. This can help you to determine how complete a record the report provides. You may also find discrepancies between the report and other internal records, particularly because these are more likely to provide evidence of dissent, disagreement, and frustration in the decision-making process.
Reports also reward follow-up research, such as using the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or Who Was Who to find out more about the people who are mentioned. By piecing together the career trajectories of volunteers and employees, you can build a clearer picture of the kinds of expertise and value systems at work within the NGO. Finally, the size of some NGO archives can be intimidating, particularly if you do not have a clear plan of how to approach them as part of a research project. However, you do not need to write a history of the whole organisation and excellent work can be produced from more focused studies. You could focus on a particular campaign, or a short period of time, for example, and use secondary literature to contextualise your findings.
Campaign advertising material
Most charitable NGOs need to raise money to support their work. Many do this by appealing to the public in posters, print advertisements, and television and radio broadcasts. Charity appeals can be found within many NGO archives (see, for example Sources [A], [B], [C] and [D]). However, because they were often printed in the press, they are also available through online, digitised newspaper archives, making this some of the most easily accessible material to students and researchers.
Charity appeals offer a rich vein of written and visual material that can be used to think through how organisations represented themselves and the intended beneficiaries of their work to the fundraising public. Historians have used these sources to think about the representation of difference and the production of stereotypes about race, class, age, and gender. Drawing on theoretical literature about ‘othering’ and on literature that discusses how images ‘make meaning’ can offer a useful framework for thinking about charity campaigns (Mirzoeff, 2002). Campaign appeals and reports rely not only on the ideologies of the society in which they are produced and consumed, but also on the specific signifying practices of charity advertising as a medium of communication. The more campaign appeals and reports you can look at, the more able you will be to identify common representational practices.
One way to build a convincing argument is to identify trends across a set of appeals. Word-searchable newspaper databases make it possible to build up a sample quite quickly. For example, you could look at one organisation’s Christmas appeals over a 10-year period; different charities’ responses to a specific humanitarian crisis, such as Biafra or the Ethiopian Famine; or appeals mentioning children that you have drawn from one month every five years over a 50-year period. There are lots of different ways to sample campaign appeals and the size and scope of the sample you need will depend on the kind of argument you aim to make.
We have to think carefully about the kinds of claims we can make using these sources. Where you find the source will affect how you are able use it. Charity appeals do not, in a straightforward way, tell us what the people who produced them were thinking. However, if they can be used alongside organisational records, we can sometimes reconstruct some of the circumstances of their production and potentially explain why particular advertising decisions were made. Nor do charity appeals tell us straightforwardly what impact they had on their audiences. Like all modes of representation, campaign appeals are open to multiple interpretations. Scholarship on the reception of texts and images stresses that audiences should be thought about as active interpreters rather than passive absorbers (Thompson, 1993). Using digitised newspaper archives carefully – paying attention to what else is on the page alongside the charity appeal, to the day of the week, and the time of the year – enables us to reconstruct some of the circumstances of the appeal’s consumption, but there is always a lot left open to interpretation. Stuart Hall’s ‘preferred reading’ model provides a helpful way of approaching this (Hall, 1980). He argues that although producers of media products cannot prescribe or guarantee how audiences will decode meaning from their products, they can attempt to ‘pre-fer’ particular interpretations. Thus, while NGOS cannot fully determine the meanings that audiences might find in their posters, they can partly condition the consumption of campaign appeals.
Ephemera of local participation
Minutes and annual reports are great for analysing how NGOs work, but the professionals and experts involved in the running of large organisations only represent part of the voluntary sector. Many historians of NGOs and voluntary action are also interested in the experiences and perspectives of ‘ordinary’ participants and in smaller-scale local groups. It is difficult to write a ‘grass roots’ or ‘history from below’ account of voluntary action using organisational archives because the voices of ‘ordinary’ participants are not usually represented in committee minutes and reports.
To find evidence of local participation, historians have had to look further afield at, for example: the personal papers of individuals; local records of associational organisations such as the Women’s Institute or Rotary Club (because they often participated charitable activity); local newspapers; and university archives, which often hold materials on student branches of NGOs. This is a much more diverse and scattered category of material than organisational records and charity appeals. It might include hand-made posters, parish newsletters, minute books of local committees, write-ups in school magazines, local press reports, and anything else that mentions public participation. Materials relating to local participation in voluntary action are often ephemeral, meaning that they have not always survived. As a result, it can be difficult to collect a large sample.
Despite these difficulties, historians are increasingly using these materials alongside central records to build a more sophisticated picture of NGO participation. These kinds of sources are important if we want to answer questions such as ‘How did the public come into contact with NGOs?’; ‘Why did they support particular causes?’; and ‘Did their support conform to the expectations of the central organisation?’ Local and regional case studies can also provide excellent opportunities for students to contribute to existing histories of specific causes or organisations. Dependent on the sample of sources you select, these kinds of materials can be used to think about how particular sections of the public – rural women, school children, university students, etc. – interacted with organisations and causes. On a larger project, a series of local case studies could be used to build up a picture of the diversity of participation in different parts of the country.
There are some issues with using this type of source material. Whereas with campaign appeals it is relatively straightforward to compare and contrast like for like (for instance, one campaign poster with another campaign poster), you are much less likely to be able to do this with local ephemera. Studying local participation may require you to compare a local newspaper article from one area, a Women’s Institute minute book from another, and a student-made poster from a third. This makes it important to reflect on the different circumstances of production for each of the different types of source, and to acknowledge that some sources will be more likely to mention particular behaviours or opinions than others. As a whole, this kind of material is more likely to reveal the actions of participants than their thoughts and reflections. As a result, work on this dimension of the voluntary sector is often influenced by theoretical work on the ‘everyday’, which focuses on the rhythms and actions of everyday life (see Gregory, 1999). Fundraising ephemera can also be productive when used alongside internal NGO records because it allows us to think about how users interpreted/manipulated the objectives of the organisation. There is often a gulf between the professionalised central organisation of modern NGOs and the supporters ‘on the ground’ involved in local fundraising and publicity efforts, and both sets of sources are needed to assess this.
This section is organised around two case studies, each of which focuses on a key theme in histories of NGOs and voluntary action. The case studies draw on sources from the three categories discussed above, and offer practical advice on how students can use these types of source to develop research questions and support arguments.
Reports, fundraising appeals and recipients
This case study considers how to use annual reports and campaign appeals to develop arguments about recipients of charity. To do this, it discusses sources from two Liverpool-based charities, both of which were operational at the start of the twentieth century. These are: a 1906 fundraising appeal from the Food and Betterment Association (FBA), which raised money to cook and distribute school meals to children from deprived homes [B]; and a report for donors from Maria Rye’s Emigration Home for Destitute Little Girls [A], which sent English children to Canada for adoption.
One way to approach these sources when thinking about recipients of charity is to analyse how they have been represented by NGOs. This will often involve working with images alongside text. When looking at photographs, I start by thinking about how they have been taken. For example, the photograph in the Food and Betterment Association appeal [B], is clearly posed. It is staged in such a way that the child is separated from his everyday context – he stands against a plain background, with a fairly neutral facial expression, and faces into the camera. His pose is passive (standing still) rather than active (doing something). Having thought about staging, I then look for any other signifiers in the photograph. Here it seems important that the boy is wearing torn clothes and has bare feet, because these act as indicators of his poverty. Finally, I look for any other information accompanying the photograph on the page. In this case, there is no name underneath the photograph. I interpret this, and the isolated staging, to mean that the photograph is being used in a way that presents a generic type (hungry child in need of charity) rather than an individual.
After analysing the photograph, I determine whether the text follows similar representational trends. In this case, the phrase ‘shall the children go hungry, parental fault or not?’ also emphasises the passivity of children, showing donors that they are deserving of help. Having established how your sources represent recipients, you could also use this foundation to develop a more sophisticated argument by thinking about the significance of representing children in this way. What does it tell us about the NGOs who chose to represent children in this way, the donors who were persuaded by this imagery, and society more broadly? How do these images contribute to discourses on childhood and poverty in the early twentieth century?
As well as using this analysis to support claims about the representation of recipients, you could also use it to develop an argument about the different techniques NGOs use to motivate people to donate money. To do this you would have to assess a range of FBA appeals to present a balanced argument that acknowledges that generating sympathy for the suffering child was certainly a common practice (as seen in [C] and [D]), but was not the only strategy the organisation employed. For example, the photograph takes up only a small section of the page in [B]. Much of the text discusses a Parliamentary Select Committee to show that, as a voluntary association, the FBA is the most effective way to address the problem of child hunger, while the final paragraph suggests that donations help to create ‘national assets’, implying that the FBA’s work will benefit society as a whole, as well as alleviating the immediate suffering of children such as the one in the photograph.
Another way to build up an argument from your analysis of an appeal such as this is to compare it to discussions of similar sources in secondary literature. The more appeals you can analyse and the more illustrative examples you can provide, the more convincing any claims that you make about representational trends will be. Building up a list of similarities and subtle differences between charity appeals will provide you with a strong evidence base from which to develop more sophisticated arguments about these trends. For example, Seth Koven (1997) has analysed Dr Barnardo’s photographs of street waifs in the late nineteenth century. Like the FBA appeal, Barnardo’s photographs emphasise the ragged clothing of the children, which may suggest that using clothing to indicate poverty was a common technique in charity appeals. However, Koven’s analysis also shows that many of Barnardo’s photographs were of posed street scenes. This differs from the plain backdrop of the FBA photograph.
Once you have identified that feature x (in this case, ragged clothing) remains the same across a sample of appeals, while feature y (in this case, the setting of the photograph) varies considerably, you might start to offer interpretations as to why this is the case. To do this we need to think about the common denominators and differences between the charitable organisations. In the case of Barnardo’s and the FBA, I would suggest that the key explanatory difference is the type of intervention that each charity intended to make. Barnardo’s intended to remove children from their lives on the streets and put them into homes, so it makes sense that they would illustrate the street as part of the problem in their campaign photos. By contrast, the FBA intended only to feed children, making the child rather than the environment the key issue to their campaign appeals.
If we are careful, we can also use some NGO-produced sources to develop arguments about the experiences of recipients themselves. For example, the report from Maria Rye’s [A], contains letters written by children the organisation sent to Canada. The letters are typically 10–20 lines long. Most of the children express thanks to Maria Rye and mention that they have arrived safely and are settling into a welcoming home. Many of the children ask after other girls from the orphanage. Although they may seem like a rare example of recipients ‘voices’ in the archive, we cannot take these letters as straightforward evidence of the girls’ experiences. It is highly likely that the letters printed in the report are only a sample of the total number received by the organisation. Because this report offers a celebratory account of the charity’s work and includes a request for donations, we know that it was intended for an external audience. We can therefore conclude that the letters were most likely selected for inclusion on the basis that they made the charity look good and/or because they showed readers the necessity for ongoing financial support. For this reason they may not be representative of the letters that were written. We have a responsibility to be open about these limitations when we use this kind of source as evidence in an argument.
That said, even though the selection of the letters was shaped by the objectives of the organisation rather than of the recipients, we can still use the letters to build an argument about the experiences of migrated children. One way to do this is to read the letters ‘against the grain’, that is, against the objectives of the organisation that we have established above. For example, many of the letters enquire after people they have left behind. In one letter a girl writes ‘Will you be so kind as to let me know wear [sic] my sister Matilda has gone’, while others seem to ask after friends. Although the organisation might have intended that this show donors that the girls were happy in the orphanage as well as when they were settled with families, we can use these letters to show that separation was a common part of the adoption process. From this foundation we can start to reflect on what this might have been like for the children involved. As well as using the letters to support arguments about the experiences of ‘recipients’, you could also return to the study of NGOs themselves and use the letters as evidence that Maria Rye’s perceived sibling separation as a normal part of the process (it was not something that needed to be hidden from potential donors).
University of Liverpool War on Want newsletters and public participation
This case study uses the newsletters of the University of Liverpool student branch of War on Want to discuss public participation in NGO activity. It focuses on how to study things that leave little trace and shows how we can use small sets of ephemeral material to support broader arguments about NGOs and voluntary action. The sources discussed come from a slim folder containing approximately 20 hand-made newsletters, posters, and flyers. I will focus on two broad research questions that these sources can help answer. How active were the students, and what was the nature of their participation in War on Want?
To determine how active Liverpool War on Want students were, the most straightforward task is to count the number of events that they held. The January 1984 newsletter [E] lists two meetings already held, eight planned, a weekend sponsored fast, an ‘Action Week’, and a recommendation for an external event. It also suggests that the society ran a regular stall selling writing paper, tea, and coffee. We can safely conclude that the society was active at this point in time, because it was able to organise events on a near-weekly basis across a full term, but how representative is the January 1984 newsletter of the society’s activity over a longer period? Within this small file of material there are significant time gaps between newsletters and posters. This could indicate that the activity level of the society was inconsistent, but it may also be that some newsletters have not survived. It is important to keep in mind that membership of student societies tends to change much more rapidly than in other local voluntary groups because the student body changes year on year. Without knowing what, if any, material is missing from the collection, any conclusions that we reach about War on Want’s long-term activity must be tentative. So long as you acknowledge this limitation, however, this kind of evidence can be used in essays to support broader arguments about the scale and scope of the voluntary sector as well as more focused arguments on student activism. To develop an argument along slightly different lines, you could compare the level of activity indicated in this source with that in newsletters from other student societies (for instance, sports clubs) from the same period. This could feed into research on the role of humanitarian NGOs within civil society and associational life more broadly.
Once you have established a general sense of the level of activity, the more complex and potentially more interesting way to use this material is to ask about the nature of student participation. How did they give their time, how did they represent themselves, and what can this tell us about their engagement with the War on Want cause? When working on local material it is important to establish contextual information about the NGO that it relates to. This allows you to consider whether local activity matches the aspirations, tactics and values of the central organisation. A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain is a good place to start as it provides brief histories of most well known organisations as well as recommendations for further reading. This lets us know that War on Want is a left-wing NGO that focuses on overseas development. It has been more politicised than some of its counterparts, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Save the Children, and values activism and protest alongside fundraising. Knowing these objectives can help frame more specific research questions, such as: do the local sources use language or refer to campaigning strategies that suggest that the students are politically engaged?
There are a number of ways to use these sources to write about the nature of student participation. The first, and most straightforward, is to consider what type of activities the society organised. For example, Source E shows that they held discussion meetings about the connections between Merseyside and the third world, watched a documentary about the Nestlé baby milk controversy, heard invited speakers on a range of issues, and a held a sponsored fast. We can use this range of activities to argue that the students were engaged with the educational and political objectives of War on Want. Frustratingly, the source cannot tell us what conclusions the students reached in the debates that they held, or how they responded to guest speakers. This is a common limitation of working with the ephemera of local participation.
Another way of using these sources is to analyse the language that they use. This can be effective as a micro-study of how Liverpool War on Want students represent themselves, but it is also possible to build a broader argument by comparing student posters to the posters used by the national War on Want organisation (which tend to take a more serious tone). One hand-drawn War on Want poster [F], is quite clearly an amateur effort. Although there are multiple indicators of this in the poster, in an essay it makes sense to select one illustrative quotation to make this point. For example, the phrase ‘we’ll try to get the University of its backside (well maybe just a tidgy-bits)’ provides evidence of both poor spelling/copy editing and colloquial language. At this stage, we can support the straightforward point that local activity was not as professional as that of the central organisation. In a longer essay or project, you could build a more sophisticated argument by reflecting on why students used colloquial language and humour in posters designed to raise awareness about suffering and inequality. To do this, it is important to think about the intended audience of the source – students – and the factors that might motivate them to join the society – an interest in the cause, and the chance to socialise with like-minded people. Casual language and humour need not indicate that those designing the posters did not take the cause seriously, but rather that they selected a register most likely to appeal to their audience.
As this chapter has shown, NGOs and voluntary action can be studied in relation to a wide range of historical questions and from a number of different methodological and theoretical perspectives. The research questions that you are trying to answer will shape the type of NGO source material that you choose to look at as well as the approach that you take when analysing the sources. There are two key issues that all students studying NGOs and voluntary action should keep in mind, regardless of the specific topic they are studying. First, you need to be attentive to the specific social and cultural contexts in which NGOs and volunteers worked and in which the primary source material that you are using was produced. This is important because these contexts will have shaped the attitudes, objectives and practices of NGOs that you identify in the primary source material. Second, it is important to remember that sources produced by NGOs often provide a very different picture of their work to sources that are produced externally. For this reason, whenever possible, you should think about how you might approach your research question from different directions and with different sources.
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