Rosie McLeod heads up the Data & Learning team at New Philanthropy Capital, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector. She is also an SRA Trustee.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Hairdresser, journalist, actress – all sorts of things. I was fascinated by people, so noble pursuits were great, but nosy pursuits were even better.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Quite early on. I’d studied Sociology and done a Research Methods MSc at Bristol University with a view to a PhD, but got diverted by life outside academia - the Young Foundation had just been established, and they were blending community-level research and policy-facing analysis in ways I was eager to try.
At school I’d been torn about what direction to go in, with an odd mix of History, Biology and Theatre Studies A levels. They each appealed - how theatre examines the human condition and can pose challenging questions; the rigorous analysis and sense-making of History; the living systems, field research, and empirical side of Biology. Social research does manage to engage with different disciplinary traditions and appeals in many of the same ways.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Bristol City Council called me up one day, out of the blue. I’d interviewed someone there as part of my Masters research thesis, which critiqued their use of male-led community organisations as the means of engaging with Somali refugee women and understanding their needs. They offered funding to pair me up with Faadumo Mohamed, a brilliant local resident, to use participatory action research with local women to create ways of organising that worked better for them. It was a dream assignment, and I was thrown in without much of a clue about what I was doing. The best way to learn fast! It was also a lesson in the ways research sometimes mitigates and sometimes reinforces unequal power dynamics between participants, researchers and commissioners.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
The main move was into BMRB, now Kantar Public. I’d been in Paris doing asylum policy research for a campaigning charity and was keen to see what impact research could have at the heart of government, as opposed to trying to change things from the outside. It was 2008, so I got straight into deliberative dialogues, qualitative research that government was starting to value in its own right, and behavioural insight when that came along. I decided to knuckle down and learn the craft for a while. And it turns out it’s endlessly interesting - that mix of technical and creative challenges, alongside the policy questions themselves - you just keep learning.
I later focused on evaluations, and the ways that data and research enquiry can help organisations to learn and improve. I moved into consultancy with charities and funders, where I still am today, helping them use research and evaluation to be more effective. I think a lot about parsimony, being proportionate, and questioning what and who the data is for. It feels clearer than ever that research is an intervention, and data is only valuable if it gets used, which keeps the urge to ask a thousand survey questions in check!
What has been your best professional moment?
There’s not one, but many great moments, always collaborations - especially where they involve pitches and unorthodox props. I’ve recently been excited by the response to our work on participation and involvement at NPC.
Having to explain to 60 Glaswegian respondents ready to hit the pub that there was no money, because I’d left a £5k cash incentives envelope locked in my office drawer in London. Argh!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Many! Professor Bridget Anderson was a formative inspiration. She’s a pioneer in the field of labour markets and immigration and combines collaboration with grass roots activists and trade unions with heavyweight research studies.
Do you have a favourite quote?
‘The story is the basic unit of human understanding’. (Martin McKneally, bioethicist)
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Do it! You’ll soon acquire useful transferable skills that open up loads of doors, so in theory you could move into many other areas …but you’ll never want to, because you’ll be hooked.