Rethinking research partnerships from a practitioner’s perspective

By Jill Russell

Academic and iNGO partnerships are happening because people are engaging. The 40 people in the room at the first meeting of the Re-thinking Research Partnership meeting in February, 2015 demonstrate this. Why are NGO practitioners engaging in partnerships with academics?

One of my favourite children’s books that I read to my daughter is a typical story of a tortoise and hare. It is called “Hurry up, and SLOW down.” All day the tortoise takes his time, wakes up slowly and reflects on her day; while the hare is constantly running around. This happens right up until bed time, when suddenly the hare wants to slow things down as a way of extending his time before turning off the lights.

Here are some thoughts about Re-thinking Research Partnerships from the perspective of the hare.

Academic and iNGO partnerships are joined together by a common desire to do quality, reflective, learning-orientated research. From an NGO perspective engaging in research helps us learn from others, improve what we are doing, and stop doing things ineffective things. Being active in research helps NGO practitioners understand their organisation’s pathway of impact, to shift strategic priorities, and to take some programming chances, or innovate.

One of the key roles I play is to lead my organisation to become more research aware and research active. To do this I need to be a good partnership broker with academics. There are many aspects of brokering an academic and NGO partnership that are common to other partnerships. Other things are unique.

During the past 100 years academic and NGO institutions have taken a similar trajectory, having been initiated in the early part of the 20th century and coming alive just after WW2. During the 21st century we have both been challenged to shift focus of our dominantly US/European-centric movements to the global South.

But the nature of the two organisations types is quite different. Academic institutions are professional organisations, relying heavily on the standardization of skills rather than processes to get things down. This allows professionals working in academic institutions a large amount of autonomy to achieve results. NGOs are more divisional organisations where a standardization of outputs is far more important than a standardization of skills. This means that NGO staff are dependent on each other, and on the managers leading the organisation.

Ultimately this means iNGO structures, systems and organisational culture are very different to academic institutions. These differences invariably lead to tensions in the partnership. In my role as a partnership broker of academic and iNGO partnerships I have observed that often in the face of these tensions I learn the most.

I am learning that the “publish or perish” mentality of an academic aids an organisation like mine that rarely stops doing anything. By continuously asking us how the planned research will contribute back to existing theory and literature; academics are keeping us more relevant and honest. At the same time, because of the dependency I have to make things happen in my organisation, I am learning that my relationship with an academic is individual, while their relationship with me is organisational. Because of this I need to welcome my academic partners into my office in order to allow them to get to know a wide variety of people in the organisation. I need to tell them that their reflective view and theory-based approach is appreciated and welcome particularly by top leaders who are grappling with issues of strategy and organisational impact. I often find myself encouraging academics not to always be the student but to allow for local participation and ownership in scholarly activities.

From my experience I know academic and iNGO partnerships can change how NGOs generate and use evidence; and change how academics engage in the pathway of impact. But before we get to these important outcomes it is important to focus on the history, politics and varying natures of these two different types of organisations.

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