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Home arrow Library of Research Articles arrow Charity and Voluntary Research arrow Appropriate strategic research for Not For Profit organisations
Appropriate strategic research for Not For Profit organisations PDF Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Smith   
08 Feb 2006

CASE STUDY: RESEARCH FOR THE NATIONAL GARDENS SCHEME, Written by Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Research

CASE STUDY: Research helps a charity realise its full potential



The National Gardens Scheme has two main functions.  It is the charity that co-ordinates the opening to the public of over 3,500 mainly private gardens each year across England and Wales, publicised in its famous annual Yellow Book.  This offers tremendous scope for leisure and education.  You may have noticed yellow information signs whilst driving over a weekend, publicising a local garden opening. 

Far fewer people know about the primary purpose of the NGS, founded in 1927 to raise funds for District Nurses.  It now generates almost £2 million a year in total for the Macmillan, Marie Curie and other nursing, caring and gardening charities. All garden owners and county based organisers work on a voluntary basis.  Management, materials and marketing come from a small Head Office team. 

Although enjoying a solid base of support and track record, there is a clear feeling amongst trustees and management that the NGS needs to build for the future.  The increased desire to connect to nature and gardens, to our local communities and to make good use of increased leisure in longer old age are the major social trends that tell the NGS that it should be even more successful.

The NGS finds itself in an increasingly crowded leisure environment.  Rather than sitting back and waiting for visitors to arrive, there is a need to actively define a wider target audience and engage with it.  It needs to think of itself more as a professional body.  This goal led to a strengthening of its full time management, and to the first commissioning of professionally organised market research.  Julia Grant, Chief Executive, comments ‘As a small Head Office team our priority has to be to understand the needs and wants of our half million plus annual visitors’ 

ASR is now providing consultancy to meet a broad range of information objectives:

1. Understand the size and nature of the current and target audience for garden visits, and how best to communicate visit benefits
2. Define the optimum pricing policy, that is seen as both reasonable and realistic by both visitors and garden owners
3. Understand how best to recruit and retain garden owners.


The gathering of research information and evidence is just the start.  The most challenging aspect of this project is thinking through the subtleties of policy implementation relevant to a voluntary organisation.  Garden owners and their county organisers balance the dual motivations of sharing their passion for gardens with raising as much money as they can for very worthwhile causes.  They have limited time to give and often many other interests.

This voluntary status of ‘your team’ defines a fundamental difference to the implementation challenges faced by charities and commercial organisations staffed by paid employees.  Paid staff will generally do what managers ask of them; in many charities your ‘workforce’ requires the benefits of any change to be immediate and obvious to gain their support.

Most with NGS involvement can readily accept the notion of being professionally organised, up to a point.  But careful nurturing is required to implement change and ensure best practice regularly happens when you are not able to fully police it.  Talk in recent group discussions of ‘maximising our marketing opportunity’ saw several garden owners glaze over.  A typical concern was ‘Yes, let’s raise money for good causes but no, we don’t want strict guidelines that limit our independence and fun’.


Whilst certainly not exhaustive, I suggest that the following guidelines are all the more needed when dealing with charities and the Not for Profit sector:

• Start small scale, and quickly demonstrate the value of research with some obvious action points.  This will help gain the buy-in of those who may not often use market information
• Demonstrate value always, both in the use of executive time and data collection resources.  The flexibility and lower cost base of independent consultants is a considerable asset in this regard, especially for their ability to devote more quality senior time to thinking through research implications
• Use a project manager who is able to bring a wider strategic, business and marketing perspective, as projects are less likely to be undertaken to meet narrowly defined tactical objectives
• Be seen to minimise costs.  Clients will often suggest the low cost route anyway, and respondents will usually understand this decision.  Although not advocating this solution as a research standard, recent discussion groups took place in a hired Surrey village hall; no incentives were paid; a DIY box of refreshments were supplied by the client, and my camcorder on a tripod recorded events.  It worked perfectly well.  The total evening costs were £30
• When buying data, omnibus or other resources, get charity discounts.


As with the gardening cycle of changing seasonal requirements, this project has different stages planned through the year:

1. There is the classic qual-quant mix and order of research stages
2. A first stage has involved groups with local garden owners and visitors, visits to several early season openings to witness what happens and talk informally, plus depth discussions (phone and in person) with county organisers.  I have also talked to most head office staff.  This work produces immediate quick win ideas, typically around publicity gaps and practical suggestions, plus of course the fine tuning of quantitative information plans for this summer
3. Further surveys are planned for the summer period, when target groups can be most readily identified and live events used for fieldwork and as a frame of reference.  This context is essential when talking to people about behaviour, motivation and required changes related to occasional visits
4. We plan to use the voluntary network of garden owners to implement and distribute a cost-effective self-completion current visitor survey
5. To understand potential visitors, we plan to make use of the database and fieldwork resource of a potential NGS sponsor in a ‘fieldwork access for publicity’ swap.  This brings obvious cost savings, but is all the more attractive to sample an ideal, well-defined and large target universe
6. Outputs from such surveys will be ready in the autumn, to fit in with the planning schedule for 2006 activities.  The November National conference will be an important part of this schedule, as the event to present research evidence and actions required from it to local delegates.


In recent years TV has seen a tremendous growth in gardening and home related programmes, reflected in the growth of garden centre and related revenues.  NGS growth has been steady but not so dramatic: so surely there is significant untapped potential demand?  Defining it, then knowing how to effectively talk to this wider universe and have it consider the value of NGS visits is a top priority.

Significant efforts have already been made in recent years to harness the media:

• Features on TV and Gardener’s World, with expert and personality  endorsements
• Many magazine features and links
• The building of an award winning website at
• Advertising garden openings in local newspapers and radio
• A clear new branding, and efforts to standardise publicity nationwide

So we are establishing the size and profile of the potential audience who would want to visit gardens.  This will feed in to communications strategy, plus bolster advertising and sponsorship sales efforts.  We will then review the mix of channels used to communicate, and the messages required to counter any wrong or vague perceptions of the likely visit experience.  For example, it’s already likely that the charitable basis of the NGS is not widely appreciated by potential visitors, and should get more visibility.


Image counts when we have such wide choice of leisure options, and so many of them require little physical effort.  Many potential visitors who know anything about the NGS may picture rural Middle England in miniature.  But the NGS offers a far more varied experience than any stereotype might suggest.  Gardens and their owners come in all shapes and sizes, from grand country estates to the incredible variety of the 165 Greater London gardens listed, not to mention the community-together feel of a group of village gardens opening on the same day on one ticket.  This is an incredible resource, and offers a great opportunity to explore the full range of this country’s garden heritage, and the people and context behind them.

Visitor motivations are in fact as wide ranging as the gardens on offer: garden ideas and inspiration; experiencing beauty and creativity; cream teas; evening wine and music; talking to experts and enthusiasts.  The common thread is just enjoying being in great gardens.  Once we have distilled this experience in to the most appropriate messages and images, it is a question of maximising publicity returns with limited resources.


A lot of our research is addressing how to increase demand.  But ‘product supply’ is also a core issue, as even past big revenue openings can be ruined by the fickle weather of an English summer Sunday.  A major challenge is to extend the number and type of garden openings: both recruiting more gardens to the scheme, and encouraging more and different opening occasions where possible from existing owners.

Gardens traditionally open on Sundays, with excellent tea & cake and plant stalls a frequent extra attraction.  Some garden owners are now successfully adding an evening event with wine and music, and can accommodate visits by appointment from interest groups and schools.  This last idea seems to spark interest: the educational value of a visit, and the need to generate enthusiasm for gardens in future generations, appeals to the instincts of many garden owners.

Our research has already flagged up the need to overcome early fears when talking with potential NGS garden owners, and some possible practical solutions.  Almost all in a group of established garden owners recently said anxiety and panic preceded their first opening.  To counter these anxieties we might suggest a more thoughtful and consistent approach to the recruitment of new garden owners, and a revised information pack.  Local mentoring and the option to meet with other garden owners is already used in some counties to cement the relationship, increase the fun from it, and so help to grow the scheme.

The difficulty with all these actions is not so much using research to determine needs and priorities, but knowing how to implement change across the historically de-centralised local network of county-based volunteers.


So how could this research helping the NGS grow?

• Measuring and profiling the current visitor universe to allow for more powerful arguments to be given to potential sponsors and advertisers
• Understanding best practice across the diverse range of county organisations to generate more consistent policies on recruitment and publicity
• Defining the target universe of potential visitors and their key visit triggers.  Understand their visit perception v reality today, so the best messages and images to present to them are clear
• Understanding value and pricing, and the stress needed on charitable causes

The NGS can never pretend to be all things to all who enjoy gardens, but research should certainly help bring this experience to a
wider audience of owners and visitors, who can then gain great pleasure in sharing gardens and in knowing that their efforts go to such worthwhile causes.

Andrew Smith runs ASR, focused on research for the service sector

Andrew Smith Research
3 The Copse, Fetcham, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 9TD
Landline: 01372 817979 E-mail:
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Last Updated ( 08 Feb 2006 )
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