Karl Wilding is Director of Public Policy at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
For much of the time I probably had no idea, but I do remember being very influenced by the RAF visiting my primary school and thinking about being a pilot! More seriously, for a number of years I thought I was going to follow one of my parents into the antiques business, in which I spent many a weekend during my teenage years. Not particularly related to social research!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I graduated in 1992 with a degree in Geography from Leeds University, and at that point stayed on to do a PhD, which I suppose is where my social research career began. I’d love to say I had insights into the importance of social research, but I’m afraid my entry into this world was more stumbling and mumbling. I used to know an awful lot about the geography of Hospital Saturday Funds and Sunday Funds (workplace and church-based collection schemes for the voluntary hospitals), which in a funny way is still useful as we think about the future of welfare state.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Aside from teaching whilst trying (and not doing a very good job) to finish the PhD, my first social research job was here at NCVO, where I stayed. It was as a research assistant, on a project to scope the contribution of the voluntary sector in the North West of England. I still remember thinking I had hit the jackpot.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I’ve stayed at NCVO ever since, progressing to run NCVO’s research function, then taking on a broader role that first covered policy and now all of NCVO’s public policy functions (research, policy, campaigns and media). Like many in our sector, my motivation has been to make a bigger difference: and thinking about how we get social research into the hands of users has always been my obsession. I’m not in this to produce more shelfware.
What has been your best professional moment?
I’ve had many! Contributing evidence to the Cabinet Office that shaped a decision on how they supported charities at the height of the recession would be one. Contributing to discussions that led ESRC to make significant investments in research on philanthropy and the third sector were also great moments. All were important policy windows.
Well, you get things wrong sometimes. I’ve had a couple of difficult professional moments when I’ve been involved in making research findings work too hard, say too much. I’m a real pragmatist, but I’ve learnt that that shouldn’t mean you let anything through your professional filter. But the worst moment was definitely not getting a job I applied for at Trinity and All Saints University (or College, as it then was), whilst finishing my PhD. After a few years of struggle I thought I was pretty much useless at that point!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Two: Professor Nicholas Deakin, now retired, and Julia Unwin, currently CEO of JRF. I love social researchers who write well; I’ve given up translating academese. Nick was once described to me as a ‘craftsman’ because he wrote so well. Julia is the same, someone who both speaks and writes really well. I think her leadership of JRF demonstrates that good quality, long-term social research is important for effective public policy, but also that social research findings aren’t just for policy or practice professionals. I’d love to achieve half of what either has done so far.
Do you have a favourite quote?
William Gibson: “The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed.” If ever there was a call to action for social researchers, that is it!
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I come across many incredibly talented social researchers who are looking to work for a charity or the public sphere. But being a good researcher isn’t good enough: most organisations need researchers who can write fluently or speak with authority. They want researchers who understand the policy or practice issues in their field, and who understand that in most organisations evidence-based research is one of a number of inputs into decision making. And they want researchers who can go beyond their own particular interest, people who see the bigger picture (I’m a great fan of Matt Might on this issue: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/)
So I’d suggest to anyone starting a career to think about blogging (to show you can write) and using social media, so that you are engaged with the policy and practice community you hope to join. There’s nothing better than seeing social research shape decisions that lead to better outcomes.