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Making Research “In Community” Work


Barbara Osborn, Ph.D.; Evelin Montes, Director of Grantmaking and Training, Liberty Hill Foundation; and Eric Wat, Director, Research and Evaluation

Team, Special Services for Groups at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference 2015


By Barbara Osborn

This post is based on a presentation originally presented in June 2015 at the Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s annual learning conference.


It's been eight years since Sandra Ball-Rokeach and I began teaching Research, Practice and Social Change. While the course isn’t formally a part of Metamorphosis, it shares similar goals, leadership and often participating students.


Research, Practice and Social Change is a graduate-level practicum that pilots short-term research partnerships with community-based organizations. The students attracted to the course tend to come from The Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism and The Price School of Public Policy. The community-based organizations are all grassroots organizations in Los Angeles working in low income communities of color. Often these community-based organizations are tiny, with a staff of one or two who are managing all organizational tasks from community organizing and political strategy to fundraising and staff and board management.


Over the years, Sandra and I have tried to distill the salient factors that make these community-university research partnerships work. Here are six factors that begin to account for the success of this model and the 35+ projects that have been developed by it. Some of the factors will probably surprise you.


  1. All of the community organizations are vetted for organizational readiness by Liberty Hill Foundation, L.A.’s social justice foundation. This assessment of organizational readiness is of enormous value.  Many small nonprofits want to take advantage of a pro bono research opportunity, but many are not organizationally ready to participate. Since Research, Practice and Social Change began working exclusively with Liberty Hill grantees, partnerships occasionally flounder but none have failed.
  1. The research is right-sized. For many community-based organizations research can be intimidating. The language of “instruments,” “indicators” and “investigators” is unfamiliar. Research, Practice and Social Change is scaled as an on-ramp for deeper investment in organizational learning. It’s not atypical to see community organizations put a “toe in the water” and then begin to more systematically integrate research and evaluation into their work.
  1. Graduate research teams begin with the community organization’s research questions. We want to help organizations learn what they think they need to learn. Too often research is conducted by community organizations because funders require it as a type of compliance tool to justify the funders’ own investments.  Instead, we start by asking, “What does the community organization want to know and why do they think it will be helpful to their work?
  1. We don’t produce white papers. Grad student research teams put a great deal of attention on how to best report out findings so they will be actionable. The end-product is never a white paper. It’s more likely to be a survey instrument plus staff training or a focus group summary plus recommendations for implementation. The form of the final product is discussed with community organizations and reviewed in draft form before being finalized so the organization will be able to implement the tools, findings, etc. after the research team has left.
  1. The Research, Practice and Social Change model is low budget, making it sustainable even under tight budget constraints. And the modest cost sidesteps frictions that often arise in university-community research partnerships that involve big money from foundations or government.
  1. Research, Practice and Social Change taps graduate student talent and dedication to social justice. The model is not dependent on the involvement of big name tenured faculty who already have their own research interests and ways of approaching that research, nor are we recruiting junior faculty desperately pursuing tenure.

    Instead we are training a new generation of academic researchers who will be far more savvy about working with community organizations as they build their own university careers. Our hope is that as they develop their own research, their own courses and students, that they will contribute to a paradigm shift in how the university approaches research “in community.”


For more information about the research partnership see these previous blog posts. http://blog.libertyhill.org/2012/06/12/asking-our-own-questions/ and http://blog.libertyhill.org/2013/06/28/you-cant-win-without-data/

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