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Ethics case study: In whose interest?

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Ethical challenges in a collaborative action research project on high cost credit with households experiencing poverty

Description of the project

Debt on Teesside is a two-year collaborative action research project, which started in 2011, funded by a grant from the Northern Rock Foundation. It is a partnership between Thrive, a community organising venture based in Teesside operating under the aegis of Church Action on Poverty (CAP), and Durham University’s Centre for Social Justice and Community Action. The project developed from Thrive’s previous work, which found significant problems with high cost credit use and debt in poorer households. As action research, there is an explicit focus on bringing about change, both at household level and at the organisational and policy level through collective action. The project has developed a programme of household mentoring on money management, linked to community-based campaigns focussing on the exploitative practices of high cost credit companies, especially doorstep lenders. The action research aims to investigate what factors shape and/or constrain financial choices made by participants; examine the impact of mentoring on behaviour and attitudinal change and choices around money management; and to contribute to community campaigns.

24 households were recruited to take part in the project, with one person being a ‘key contact’, who gave detailed financial information in an initial interview. At the time of recruitment, no key contacts reported being in paid work, but two had a partner in paid work. All other households received income solely from benefits or a mixture of benefits and tax credits. With limited access to mainstream credit, such households often turn to high cost credit sources for money and goods including: rent to own stores, catalogues, doorstep lenders and payday loans with APR charges ranging from 437% to more than 4,000%. All participating households had problem debts, ranging from £340 to more than £10,000, many accrued from high cost credit sources.

Each household was offered a mentor, who would aim to meet them monthly and maintain contact via telephone and text messages between meetings. Some households did not take up the mentoring offer, and with others the contact has been variable. The role of the mentor is to look at the priorities identified by the household, signpost services and organisations and support positive change, preferably away from high cost credit choices towards more financially sustainable options. On the campaigns and policy front, Thrive and CAP have been instrumental in changing the lending practices of three significant rent-to-own companies and are currently working on an ‘affordability’ campaign highlighting the need for loan companies to take into account whether people can afford the loans on offer. 

Ethical issues anticipated in the project

The main issues anticipated were around how the partnership would work, and some of the complexities relating to confidentiality if people from the local community acted as mentors.  A partnership agreement was made between Thrive and Durham University, outlining the responsibilities of each organisation. The University was the grantholder, hence responsible for the project overall, and was primarily responsible for the research aspects of the project, whilst Thrive was responsible for recruiting and supporting households and mentors and for campaigns. Accepted ethical guidelines were followed, including informed consent of households and safeguards regarding anonymity.

Ethical issues emerging and developing

Some participants were willing to give consent and sign up to the project on an initial visit from a Thrive worker, before learning the full details of what was involved. To ensure that participants understood the implications of their involvement and uses of the information, the researcher ensured that prior to the initial interviews, the consent form was read through in detail and examples given of possible uses of the data.

During the course of the project, it became clear that a significant number of participants were experiencing mental health-related problems. This led to discussion by team members about potential exploitation of participants, including consideration of the extent to which their consent was fully ‘informed’. One of the approaches used in the campaigning element of the project is to hold public assemblies, at which people with direct experience of high levels of debt are asked to speak. Whilst this gives voice to people facing financial exclusion, it also exposes people to potential public embarrassment and may cause emotional pain. The need to support people fully through this process is very important.

An unexpected issue arose regarding a donation accepted by Thrive. In the middle of the research project, Thrive’s Management Committee accepted a donation of several thousand pounds from the staff fundraising efforts of a high-cost credit company, Buy as You View. Thrive had previously campaigned against the unethical practices of this company and is currently working with the company to reform some of its ways of working. The Durham University partners found out about the donation after it had been accepted. This caused some tension and debate within the project team. Thrive’s community organising approach is premised on the idea ‘no permanent friends, no permanent enemies’, meaning that their tactics include working with organisations against which they have campaigned in order to effect reform. Taking money from Buy As You View was not regarded as compromising the integrity of Thrive’s work nor the research. The two University staff, however, felt that accepting a donation of this kind was contributing to giving credibility to a high cost credit company whose core business revolved around exploiting poor people. It might also damage the integrity of Thrive’s work, and by association the action research project. 

Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues

Differences in values and ways of working may not always be apparent at the start of a project, so it can be helpful to discuss how to deal with differences at the start. In future projects, the donations issue could be discussed beforehand by partners, possibly with scenarios of when and from whom it might be regarded as un/acceptable to take a donation and in what circumstances each partner should consult the other about the implications. 

Further details:


Jan Flaherty ( and Sarah Banks (, Durham University; Tracey Herrington ( and Greg Brown ( Thrive; and Mark Waters (, Church Action on Poverty.