5. Planning your research

This section covers four aspects of planning that will help you get started.

Part A gives you some tools to help you plan your research project. We provide a flowchart for groups just beginning to think about undertaking research. If you work through and answer the questions it asks, it should help clarify what you want to do and why, and will give you some ideas about how to go about it. Don’t feel limited by the responses in the boxes. They are just suggestions and you will have your own ideas about who to talk to and what to do with the information you collect.

Part B ‘Managing your research project’ looks at some of the practical issues raised in the flowchart exercise in more detail.

Part C ‘Designing your research’ explains how to construct your specific piece of research so that it provides meaningful answers to the questions you want to address. We show how to plan your research incorporating the theory you learned from section 2. In ARVAC’s work with groups, we use a research design template. Here we provide an example of how one group used it to plan their research. (There are blank templates for you to photocopy in section 8).

Lastly, in Part D we look at sampling – how to ensure that you are getting views from a cross section of the people that you want to know about. When working with a limited budget and limited time, as most community groups are, you do not want to compromise the value of your research by talking to too few people or people who are not representative of the group or area as a whole. Nor do you want to set yourself unrealistic targets, such as trying to contact everyone on a large housing estate, when you do not need to.


A. Planning your research – a flowchart

The following chart illustrates the process you might need to follow to plan your research.  The aim is to help you to think through all the questions you need to ask yourselves before you start.


  • Why do we want to do this research/ consultation?


    • Organisational review.
    • User feedback.
    • Measuring the impact of our activities.
    • A planning tool.
    • To change how we do things.
    • To improve our service.
  • What do we want to find out?


    • What people think and feel about what we do – inside and outside the organisation.
    • What people’s needs and wants are.
    • What would people like to see change?
    • What difference have our activities made?
  • Who do we need to talk to? Who has the information we need?


    • Users, potential users. Staff, volunteers, board members, funders, community groups, local residents, professionals, statutory agencies, other voluntary sector groups.
  • How can we get the information we need?


    • Using questionnaires.
    • Doing interviews.
    • Having focus groups.
    • Running group discussions.
    • Having public meetings.
    • Reading reports and other research.
    • Using local and national statistics.
  • When would we do this?


    • On a regular basis.
    • At the start middle and end of a project.
  • What would we want to do with the information?


    • Produce a report.
    • Change our organisational policy.
    • Publicise our success.
    • Use it:
      • To get more funding.
      • To make changes.
      • To give feedback to people who took part.
  • How can we involve local people?


    • Invite people on to a steering group.
    • Ask them to test our questions.
    • Train local people/users as researchers.
    • Use community development methods to involve people in planning the research  (See resources).
  • How much money and resources do we have?


    • Actual cash.
    • Payments in kind for stationery, post, space, photocopying.
    • People’s time and skills.
    • Partnership with a research organisation.
    • Data management software.
    • Use of social media.
  • How much is it likely to cost?

    Financial considerations

    • Depends on the methods you use and how big it is.
    • Some funders suggest 5-10% of the project cost for an evaluation
    • Other costs:
      • Photocopying, meeting rooms, refreshments, display materials, identification badges, data input.
      • If community members are involved – Childcare, travel, training, stationery, incentives to participate, DBS checks, safety equipment.

B. Managing your research project

In order to make your research happen you need to plan it well. This section outlines some of the more practical issues and section C looks at planning your research in more detail. In practice, you will find the two processes overlap. Getting an overview of the practical issues involved may influence some of the decisions you need to make when designing the research. Equally, understanding the steps you need to go through in a well-designed piece of research will help you resolve some of the issues described below.

Is there a deadline?

  • Have you got to fit into a particular time-scale?
  • Are you using the research as part of a funding bid that has a set time limit?
  • Do you want to fund the research from year-end spend?
  • If you are working to a deadline, you will need to plan accordingly and judge if what you have in mind is realistic and achievable. You need to allow time for each of the following stages.
  • Defining the problem. (See next section).
  • Designing the research.
  • planning, piloting and revising data collection.
  • Carrying out the data collection.
  • Sorting and analysing information.
  • Producing results and using them.
  • Dissemination.

How much time do you have?

How many actual hours are available for the research process? It’s often useful to consider who can be involved and how much time they have; volunteers, paid staff, management committee etc. If you are thinking of using a paid researcher, you will probably need to judge how much of their time you can afford. It is important to consider this when choosing what methods to use – you need to be realistic.

Ideally you should test whatever tools and approaches you are using, using a small sample, to ensure you are using appropriate methods and that you can actually answer the questions that you have set yourself with the research.  This is called ‘piloting’ your research.  Although it seems like an extra task it can save you lots of time and money if you sort out any problems at this stage.

You may not get as many responses as you had hoped so you may need to extend your deadline and promote the research more to encourage people to participate.

How much will it cost?

Research is often under-costed and invisible items can use up a fair amount of resources. Possible costs include:

  • Time, especially paid staff time.
  • Buying in specialist skills, such as data inputting.
  • Resources: computer, software, printer, phone line.
  • Specialist analysis software.
  • Transport.
  • Stationery.
  • Postage.
  • Meeting rooms.
  • Photocopying.
  • Phone bills.
  • Childcare.
  • Safety equipment.
  • Researcher identification badges.
  • Training costs.
  • Employing facilitators and/or interpreters if needed.
  • Incentives/expenses for participants.


C. Designing your research

Working your way through our research design templates should help you plan your research. We show you here how one group worked through the template. You can copy this template  for your own use.

1 Research proposal

You will find it easy to establish the broad area you want to conduct your research in: youth unemployment in your area, or concerns that local members of an ethnic group have about using local health services, for example.

Example: A community group has identified the need for a space for groups to meet and deliver activities.  The existing community centre is old and run down.  They need to decide what sort of things people would want to use a space for and whether they should plan to adapt the existing centre or develop a new one. This example is followed step-by-step.

2 Purpose of research

Think about what outcome you expect from your research – will it identify a specific need that you plan to remedy? Or suggest changes to your project?

Or highlight gaps in local service provision that you want to campaign around? This is the research purpose.

Are you starting with an idea that you want to test – and find evidence to prove it?  Or are you trying to find out what people think about an issue that is of interest to you?

  • To establish whether there is a need for additional space for community activities.
  • To find out what other facilities exist and who is using them.
  • To find out what particular resources people will need, such as additional outdoor space, storage facilities, catering facilities, etc.
  • To identify people who might want to get involved in developing a new centre.

3 Issues to be studied

Where does the need to do this research come from?  Identify the issues you are trying to explore, using anecdotal statements made by members of your group. Brainstorming sessions may reveal that different people involved in the research group have different ideas about the actual issues, so this stage needs to involve as many people as possible.

  • Members of the community group have experienced the lack of spaces to meet and run groups.
  • Long term dissatisfaction in the community with the lack of investment in the community centre.
  • Concern that some members of the community are unwilling to use the existing centre because it serves alcohol.

4 Defining your research questions

The next step is to make your research both meaningful and manageable by thinking of the specific questions you are trying to address.

These questions should closely relate to the issues identified above. These are the questions that will form the basis of your analysis. Phrase them carefully as this will help narrow down your research. Be sure to include boundaries for your research by adding in phrases such as ‘in this estate,’ ‘by young people aged 16 to 25,’ wherever appropriate.

Resist the temptation to ask about lots of things that ‘it would be interesting to find out’  Only collect data that you need and will use – this is ethical and in line with data protection laws

  • How many groups currently use the existing centre?
  • Is there space capacity in the community centre or other facilities?
  • How many groups in the community are looking for additional space?
  • Would organisations from outside the community be willing to use a new space?
  • What would individuals and families from this community use additional space for, e.g. family parties, weddings, etc. and what resources would the space have to provide?

5 What data will you collect? What research already exists in this area? 

You might only need to do a review of what already exists

This is the stage at which you begin to select a strategic approach. If you are asking ‘how many’ or ‘how big’ you are taking a quantitative approach. If you are asking questions beginning ‘why or ‘how’ you are taking a qualitative approach. Remember you can combine different approaches and methods.

  • Records of use of the existing community centre.
  • A survey of local residents.
  • A list of contacts for other community spaces.
  • Interviews with representatives of different community groups.
  • Focus groups with local residents.
  • Getting data for your community from a previous council survey of which community groups are active in the district.

6 Where will this information come from?

By identifying the type of information you need and the people or other sources able to provide it, you will be creating the right mix of methods. Think about whether you need a broad overview or an in-depth response.

Are you looking for factual information, opinions or personal accounts?

  • Lists of local groups from the local authority and the local council for voluntary services.
  • Residents’ knowledge of local spaces and resources.

7 Who will collect this data?

One member of the management committee and volunteers will form a team of community researchers.

8 How will the information be recorded?

  • The questionnaire with local residents will be entered on to a spreadsheet.
  • Interviews will be recorded by a note taker – this could be the interviewer taking notes or recording the meeting.
  • Focus groups will be recorded on the facilitator’s phone and transcribed afterwards (the recordings will then be deleted).

9 How will the information be put together or analysed in order to answer the above questions?

Do you have the skills and resources to do this on a computer – or can you find someone who know how to do this?

  • Community researchers will bring their findings together and  plan how to prepare a report.
  • All the findings will be analysed to help the research team understand the answers to their questions.
  • One member of the group has worked in market research and will lead the analysis.

10 How will the findings (the answers to the questions) be presented, disseminated, used or passed on?

  • A presentation at the annual community get together.
  • An exhibition to be lent to local community groups, the branch library and local schools.
  • A written report.
  • Funding applications.

Fig. 5

Finally, it is good practice to keep a record or diary of your research process, from your first thoughts, through sampling, research approaches and methods to your final analysis. In doing this you provide a clear account of what has influenced the decisions about the research.  This will be helpful when you come to writing up your findings.


D. Sampling – who to talk to

Starting to think about sampling can feel like a complicated and difficult part of the research process – and it can get very technical.  The important thing is not to be put off by this.  Remember, it is better to do something small-scale and simple rather than nothing at all

“Community research that describes what people said is all that’s needed, recording the feelings and experiences of residents … giving people the confidence to do something very small scale” (Researcher)

Sampling is about making sure that the people who contribute to your research are not just a group of people you already know and who might all share your views, and that your research gives a true picture of all the different opinions and situations that exist in the population where you are doing your research.

When designing your research, you will need to decide on who and where you will gather data from and how these individuals or groups will be selected.  First you need to decide what the ‘population’ is that you will be getting your information from.  You need to know how big it is before you start, for example:

  • How many residents live in social housing on this estate?
  • How many households are there in this village?
  • How many people used our service last year?

This will define your ‘sample’. The size and composition of your sample will affect the validity and reliability and validity of your research and are therefore extremely important.

Sampling frame

A sampling frame is a complete and up-to- date list of everyone relevant to your research. If, for example: everyone who was a member of your lunch club last year, or everyone who used your advice service.  This is information you should already have and why it is important to keep it up to date and to have the right information stored (that is also GDPR compliant).

If you wish to survey everyone over 18 living on a particular estate, you could use the electoral register, available from local libraries or the local town hall, to compile a mailing list. Remember the electoral register does not provide any information other than addresses. It does not list those under 18 or people who have not registered to vote.  However, it may be enough for you to know the size of the population and several other key aspects of the profile of the population, such as age, gender, ethnicity, employment status.  When you do your research you could ask a question about people aged under 18 living in the household.

With some groups, such as refugees living on an estate or homeless people, you may not have access to enough information to construct a sampling framework. In that case you will need to use one of the other approaches described below, such as snowball sampling or cluster sampling. This is likely to be the most appropriate way of finding out about these groups.

Sampling techniques

Sometimes you can include everyone that is in your sampling frame in your research – for example, if you planned to include the views of all your users in an evaluation. In that case you need go no further in the sampling process. However, in most cases, unless the community is very small, or your resources large, you will be seeking information from a proportion of the overall population and this becomes your sample. This section looks at different ways of selecting that sample to ensure that your research is fair and impartial. They are divided into probability and non-probability samples.

Probability sampling techniques

Probability sampling means those included within your sample are representative of the whole community, groups of people, or set of organisations that your research is interested in and you can therefore generalise your findings to this group.  This is mostly used when the overall group is too large to include everyone. There are several different methods for doing this.

  • Random sampling is where you select at random from your sampling frame.

You may choose to select names out of a hat until you get the number of names you need. Or you could roll a dice to get a series of numbers and use these to select from the sampling frame. For example, mark the fourth name on your list, then the third after that, then the sixth after that. Alternatively, use the numbers to locate the entry in a database.  You can find several tools to do this electronically – but avoid the ones helping you to choose your lottery numbers!

  • Systematic sampling is a variation of random sampling. Samples are chosen mathematically ensuring everyone has a fair chance of being selected for the sample. You might choose every 100th person from the sampling frame to receive a questionnaire.

Sometimes these techniques, particularly with very small sample sizes, will not produce a representative sample of the people or groups which the research is interested in. For example, the sampling frame contains both men and women but your sampling technique has only chosen men. Community groups are unlikely to have the resources to deal with a large enough sampling frame to ensure a truly representative sample. In this case use one of these methods

  • Stratified sampling works by ensuring that your sample contains the correct percentage of a certain group in relation to a wider group or the whole population..

Example of stratified sampling

An Education Authority wanted to find out reasons why people who live in their area go to university. Their aim was to compare women’s and men’s reasons. 58% of people at university from the area are women and 42% are men, so a sample of 50 students needs to contain 29 women and 21 men. If they also want to ensure a correct age balance they would have to add another layer of selection. So if 64% of students are under 30 and 36% are over 30, their sample would need to include 32 people aged under 30 and 18 over 30

  • Quota sampling is based on the same principles as stratified sampling but it is not a random selection of people. Instead it is left to the researcher to find the people and fill the quotas for each group or strata. You would need to ensure that there is no bias when selecting these people – what someone is wearing, the way they are acting or which road they live on should have no bearing on them being selected for participation.

Non-probability sampling techniques

Sometimes it is inappropriate or impossible to get a representative sample. Typically this might be a small-scale study where the population is unknown or where it is difficult to contact people such as homeless people, drug users or refugees. In such cases you will need to use one of these techniques.

  • Purposive sampling is when the researcher selects those to be included in the sample because they will provide valuable data for the research. Though this sacrifices the representative nature of probability samples, this may not be important for your research as the information gathered from these individuals is critical for the research.
  • Snowball sampling is where the sample grows through people suggesting others for the study based on the research criteria. This is an effective way to build a reasonable sample with little or no information for a sampling frame.

Example of purposive and snowball sampling

A health authority wanted to find out about how many migrant workers employed as fruit and vegetable pickers in their area had problems with drug abuse as they were concerned that their services were not reaching this population.  They commissioned researchers with language skills of the majority of this population who visited the cafes and bars used by the workers and quickly identified a group of people who were willing to talk about their experiences.  These people also identified others in their community who might talk to the researchers.  In total the researchers spoke to ten people, which was seen by the commissioner as being a valid sample size.

Cluster sampling

This is used when the population of study is widely dispersed and the research has limited resources to access this group. This approach is useful where it is not possible to construct a sampling frame because there are no comprehensive lists of names and contact details of the population of study.

Example of cluster sampling

If you wished to survey nurses in NHS hospitals throughout London you would randomly select hospitals from a comprehensive list. From a list of all the nurses in those hospitals selected you could then randomly select a sample of nurses. This is called cluster sampling because the nurses are clustered in the respective hospitals.

Sampling Method
Useful for
Not useful for

 Stratified sampling

Selecting a smaller sample that is fully representative of the wider population

A very small sample group when the numbers would be so small that they are not statistically valid

Quota sampling

Selecting a smaller sample that is fully representative of the wider population

Can sometimes reinforce existing opinions
Selecting a sample in a hard to reach community where you don’t have existing contacts

Purposive/snowball sampling

Finding out who has information when you don’t already know
Getting well-informed responses from people with expertise

Accurate representation of the whole population
Can sometimes reinforce existing opinions

Cluster sampling

Selecting a manageable sample from a very large population

Accurate representation of the whole population

Fig. 6

Are these samples ‘valid’? 

Do they tell us enough and are the findings meaningful?

Sample size

There is no strict mathematical formula to help you make this decision. It depends on how large your total population of study is, how many subdivisions are in the sample (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity, disability), the area covered and what data you require.  For instance if you are studying one estate of 3,500 people, a reasonable number might be 10% or 350 people.

Other projects may start without knowing the exact size of their sample. The more in-depth the information you are seeking, the smaller your sample is likely to be – note the example of purposive and snowball sampling.

Response rate

The use of postal questionnaires in market research achieves a response rate of about 5%. Community organisations may receive a higher response when conducting postal questionnaires and some have achieved rates of up to 40%. Following up non-returns is one way of increasing this response rate and will require patience, perseverance and a way of identifying people who do not reply.

Telephone and face-to-face interviews achieve a much higher response rate, but also require more resources. Allowing for those with whom you cannot make contact and those that do not wish to be interviewed will lower your response rate to perhaps 70-80%.

A low response rate can invalidate your research especially if the people who don’t reply have something in common (this is not the same as having a small sample group). If you were doing a doorstep survey and only called in daytime, you could find that you are excluding the views of many employed people. A postal survey might not be completed by people who have reading problems, or whose first language is not English, lowering your response rate and excluding their views.