Building Research Capacity in the NFP Sector
22 December 2015 at 11:26 am
There are new signs that Not for Profits will no longer work in silos but come together to define issues, articulate outcomes, engage in peer review work, and share data and projects, writes research consultants Katrina Stratton and Brooke Jones.
We know Not for Profit organisations are increasingly driven to demonstrate the impact they have with the individuals, families and communities they serve. Yet many struggle to build research capacity facing challenges including cost, sector and organisational culture, and lack of expertise.
An event in Perth late last month engaged sector leaders, researchers and universities in addressing key issues for building research capacity in the WA Not for Profit Sector.
How did it work?
Using a World Café style, the 50 attendees separated into four discussion groups to consider the vision for research in the NFP sector in ten years’ time, how to get started, how do NFPs use research and how to harness capacity.
Researchers and consultants from four WA organisations leading the way in research and evaluation facilitated each discussion: Wanslea represented by Dr. Katrina Stratton, ASeTTS with Stephanie Olinga-Shannon, AnglicareWA with Desiree Nangle, and Stephanie Shorter from Social Ventures Australia (WA).
Professor Paul Flatau, Director, Centre for Social Impact, UWA and Professor David Gilchrist, Director, Curtin Not-for-Profit Initiative bookended the World Café with plenary sessions.
Realising the Vision
The vision generated for using research and evaluation in the Not for Profit sector was aspirational – yet within reach – as other discussions revealed the seeds for such a future have been sown, with some even flourishing.
The vision is to use research and evaluation as a core activity rather than an add-on. We saw NFPs already focusing research efforts to develop an evidence-base for improved service delivery, to create social impact and serve mission.
In his opening address, Professor Paul Flatau described research as "discovery without any pre-conditions", while research can provide an evidence-base and justification for certain decisions, it must be approached with openness and a willingness to learn.
A significant discussion thread was the relationship between research and funding. Currently, some NFPs use research evidence and outcomes to support funding applications. A call to action was made to influence funders by consistently including a budget for evaluation.
Professor Flatau identified signs of hope with the growth of philanthropic funding of capacity-building activities.
Engagement is key.
Collaboration and relationships were key to how research and evaluation is undertaken in the vision. NFPs will no longer work in silos but come together to define issues, articulate outcomes, peer review work, and share data and projects.
Connected NFPs with an existing track record of formally and informally engaging with universities, funders, research centres and other providers can harness these relationships for further learning, leverage and partnerships.
Another key theme that emerged around engagement was the involvement of beneficiaries both as participants and co-designers of research and evaluation.
Professor David Gilchrist, in his closing comments continued the collaboration theme, saying there had never been a better time for industry to come to universities for assistance with research and evaluation. He sees great potential in both sectors growing an understanding of how the other contributes, and how they can better collaborate.
A number of strategies for getting started were identified throughout the event:
· developing or recruiting in-house expertise;
· getting buy-in from the leadership and Board;
· sharing findings and practice implications with practitioners to engage them;
· beginning with manageable, small projects;
· starting with existing data;
· initiating conversations and partnerships with other NFPs or universities;
· developing program logic;
· finding champions – including politicians – of your mission, or service groups who could support research endeavours.
Having already generated new conversations and connections, the event partners hope to continue to showcase existing strengths in the sector for shared learning and development.
About the authors; Katrina Stratton is a social worker, researcher and consultant and is currently the Coordinator of Research and Evaluation at WA children’s foster NFP Wanslea. Brooke Jones is a Research Fellow at Curtin Not-for-profit Initiative and Board Director (Trainee) at Community Vision Inc.