By Dana R.H. Doan
Nonprofit and philanthropic studies often involves scholars partnering with philanthropic organizations to conduct their research. Having started the doctoral program at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy after close to two decades working as a nonprofit practitioner, I had several opportunities to partner with scholars conducting research.
Those experiences left me with a number of questions about how academia approaches the process of forming and managing a research partnership with nonprofit organizations. As my first two years of coursework are coming to an end, and as I begin drafting my dissertation proposal, I discovered more questions that needed to be asked about studies on and with nonprofits.
As part of an exercise for my Advanced Research Seminar (PHST-P790), I was provided with an opportunity to interview Dr. Richard M. Clerkin, professor of public administration and executive director of the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University, who offered to let me ask him some of these questions.
What kind of partnerships does your institute form with nonprofits?
RC: The Institute for Nonprofits focuses on building the capacity of nonprofits. The Institute offers education activities that focus on long-term systematic change and conducts research on capacity building of nonprofits. In addition, the Institute collaborates with graduate students at N.C. State to translate scholarly research into practice, publishing articles aimed at nonprofit practitioners in the Philanthropy Journal.
I recently came across a set of resources produced by Christian Aid’s Centre for Excellence in Research, Evidence and Learning entitled, “Fair and equitable research partnerships for international development research.” The reports address the importance of setting expectations for research partnerships. What types of guidelines or expectations do you see as important when launching a research partnership with a nonprofit?
RC: It is important to set expectations in terms of time frames. Academic research can appear to move at a glacial pace compared to what nonprofits may expect. For us, timing is one of the biggest issues with regard to setting expectations for the quality of research that is desired.
Partners need to understand the tradeoffs that would exist if changes, such as a shorter timeline, are requested. What is the soundest research that can be achieved within the revised timeline?
There needs to be discussions when there are issues and when changes are requested or needed. The purpose of those discussions is to understand tradeoffs.
To what extent is research “co-created,” whereby nonprofit partners are actively engaged in the design of the research question, in the implementation of the research, and/or in the analysis and dissemination of the data that is collected?
RC: This really comes down to the individual scholar’s philosophy.
North Carolina State is a land-grant university and our Institute for Nonprofits is situated within the Humanities and Social Sciences. We’ve done some work in Southeast Raleigh, which historically is the African American part of the city. In the past, the university has done things to this community and not with them.
There is now greater consciousness of the need to co-create, to honor the expertise of the people we work with to create knowledge. For example, we recently worked to build the capacity of nonprofits operating in Southeast Raleigh and the rural communities in eastern Wake County. Although we developed a training model, these communities had their own unique needs and capacities. By taking the time to understand each community’s individual needs and capacities, we were able to individualize the trainings to address those needs and capacities.
The approach to partnership often depends on the intended audience for the research, such as the proposed academic journal or discipline. In general, an engaged research project is not valued in certain academic publications; however, if you talk with anyone working in practice that approach is highly valued.
Engaged scholarship is becoming more valued in certain fields (for example, community psychology). What ought to be the focus is the methods and rigor around engaged research. We need to think, as a field, about what that means … it is up to debate. And there are likely to be different views depending on whether a scholar applies a positivist, post-positivist, interpretivist, or other approach.
Should research questions be generated from academia or from the field of practice?
RC: My short answer is that it depends.
A scholar should focus on a research question that gets him or her excited to do the research. The process of conducting research and drafting an article is typically going to take one to three years of a scholar’s life. Where the interesting questions come from depends on the researcher.
I teach a class called, “The Foundations of Public Administration.” In that class I have the students read, from the Academy of Management Journal, a series on what makes research interesting. One of the articles talks about relationships; relationships between collaborators, relationships between researchers and the field – the applied field that we are in. The article talks about how the research needs to be interesting “to the field” and not “on the field.” However, the tension becomes: if we only respond to what the field wants, how do we build intellectual knowledge in the academy?
When scholars partner with nonprofits to collect data, who owns the data that is created?
RC: That is a tough question.
It is an issue for the field of scholarship as much as for the field of practice. We talk about transparency, the need to learn from failure, but we do not share our failures. There is huge risk aversion. But, until we embrace failure and learn from it, we won’t move forward toward improving operations, effectiveness, and communities.
So, my suggestion to nonprofits and foundations is to embrace failure: be more open to realizing that you can do things better. And the same advice goes for researchers: maybe our question is not that interesting after all.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of pushback from all areas towards sharing data. When you are working on collective impact, as we are, people often make excuses – claiming that programs prevent data sharing when they really don’t do that. I suppose we just don’t want to be made vulnerable.
We are operating in a quasi-competitive environment, rather than a cooperative environment. Funders sometimes set up this type of competition. To get at more transparency, to be more open with the data, about who owns it, and about how it gets used, we need a larger systems change. We need a better incentive structure to make that happen.
How do you think academia could improve in regards to forming and maintaining equitable research partnerships with nonprofits?
RC: I think change will need to happen at the systems level. For example, there would need to be faculty incentives. How do universities value working with and maintaining relationships with nonprofits, particularly in regards to the promotion and tenure process? The school in which I am affiliated is beginning to ask such questions and starting conversations, but we are not very far along. This situation is more challenging in R1 university environments.
While working as a practitioner, I sought out evidence-based research in hopes of gaining understanding and improving my decision-making capacity. However, I often found it difficult to access the information I was seeking whether due to publisher paywalls, challenges interpreting academic jargon, or simply not knowing where to look for a particular type of research. In what ways do you think research partnerships could produce knowledge that is more accessible to nonprofit practitioners?
RC: There are a couple of different ways we’ve done that at NCSU and it is an emerging practice in the field. The Institute for Nonprofits publishes the Philanthropy Journal, which is a national publication geared toward nonprofit practitioners.
Our Institute for Nonprofits has an on-going partnership with a master’s-level strategic management course. We ask the students in that class to select a topic in their coursework to conduct a literature review on and then draft an article for the Philanthropy Journal that summarizes the state of the knowledge relating to that topic and what it means for the field of nonprofit practice.
In addition, we partner with graduate students (both doctoral students and master’s students) to select recent academic articles published in the National Voluntary Sector Quarterly and write a “so what” piece for the Philanthropy Journal. The students are asked to de-jargonize the article and explain what it means for nonprofit practitioners.
The work we do for the Philanthropy Journal is a resource-intensive process. As you may know, it can be challenging to create a sustainable resource of this nature.
Outside of our university, there is also The Conversation, which tends to focus on research related to public policy. (The Conversation, which launched in Australia in 2011 and opened its U.S. operation in 2014, reaches out to scholars and works with them to translate their research for broader public consumption.)
That’s the end of my interview with Dr. Richard Clerkin. What questions do you have about building and maintaining equitable research partnerships?
Whether you are a scholar looking to partner with a nonprofit or a nonprofit practitioner considering a partnership with a university, asking those questions and setting expectations upfront, before a partnership is formed, can greatly improve your partnership experience. I learned this through first-hand experience. Now that I am operating from a different side of the partnership, I have new questions that need to be asked, and I would welcome any thoughts and suggestions for building and maintaining equitable research partnership.