Improving collaboration between practitioners and academics: what to do? (with a little help from Einstein)

Previous posts in this 3 part series explored the obstacles to INGO-academic collaboration, and the lessons of systems thinking. This final post suggests some theory v factsways forward (with some sarcastic asides from Einstein)

Based on all of the above, a number of ideas emerge for consideration by academics, INGOs and funders of research.

Suggestions for academics

Comments on the blogposts that formed the basis for this article provided a wealth of practical advice to academics on how to work more productively with INGOs. These include the following:

  • Create research ideas and proposals collaboratively. This means talking to each other early on, rather than academics looking for NGOs to help their dissemination, or NGOs commissioning academics to undertake policy-based evidence making.
  • Don’t just criticise and point to gaps – understand the reasons for them (gaps in both NGO programmes and their research capacity) and propose solutions. Work to recognise practitioners’ strengths and knowledge.
  • Make research relevant to real people in communities. This means proper discussions and dialogue at design, research and analysis stages, disseminated drafts and discussing findings locally on publication.
  • Set up reflection spaces in universities where NGO practitioners can go to take time out for days, weeks or months, and can be supported to reflect on and write up their experiences, network with others and gain new insights on their work.
  • Catalyse more exchange of personnel in both directions. Universities could replicate the author’s ‘Professor in Practice’ position at the London School of Economics and Political Science, while INGOs could appoint honorary fellows, who could help guide their thinking in return for access to their work.

Suggestions for INGOs

In addition to collaborating in the ways discussed above, INGOs could encourage cooperation by:

  • Being open about their knowledge base, especially the large amount of data collected while monitoring and evaluating their projects. Oxfam now makes its impact evaluation survey data free to download.
  • Finding cost-effective ways of cooperating through long-term but loose networks maintained over time, which can be activated when necessary (e.g. in response to events or new priorities). This is less time intensive than establishing dense and time-consuming networks that often peter out for lack of resources.
  • Setting up arm’s length collaborative watchdogs on particular institutions or issues with a research function, that maintains a network of academics and activists, as well as maintaining institutional knowledge. Good examples are the Bretton Woods Projector Control Arms.
  • Building bridges at all levels of the knowledge ‘food chain’: INGOs need to go beyond the academic big names and conference attractions to build links with early career researchers. For example, Transparency International has set up a programme called Campus for Transparency that match-makes a Transparency International chapter or staff member who has a specific research need with a university MA programme or student who would then deliver this specific research product as part of their study requirement. PhD students can be involved along similar lines, provided the issues identified are sufficiently core to the INGOs’ work that they will not be made redundant by shifting priorities before the thesis is even written!

einstein theory v practiceSuggestions for funders

By insisting on evidence of impact, and supporting partnerships and consortia involving both researchers and practitioners, governments and aid donor funders already contribute significantly to bridging the academic–INGO divide. But they could do more, including the following:

  • Innovative financing – for example, offering 50/50 funding, half for programmes on the ground and half for research. At the moment donors seem to fund one or the other (research with a few links to practitioners, or programmes with a bit of money for monitoring, evaluation and learning), which misses a chance to foster deeper links.
  • They could also fund intermediary organisations with a mandate to build bridges between the two worlds. According to a recent Carnegie UK report:

Numerous studies reveal that people and small businesses outside universities find them impenetrable institutions. A member of the public or a community or voluntary organisation seeking a relevant point of contact in a university to discuss their research-related query often encounters a huge, incomprehensible organisation whose website is structured according to supply-side logic (faculties, departments, degree programmes) rather than according to demand considerations or user needs.

You can download the chapter in the IDS book on which these posts are based here.


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6 Responses to “Improving collaboration between practitioners and academics: what to do? (with a little help from Einstein)”
  1. Sarah

    I think you have missed the main point in these posts: academics and NGOs are (usually) answering fundamentally different types of questions and producing different orders of knowledge. Generalising massively, academics in the social sciences – who you seem mainly to be talking about here? – are interested in the ‘whys’ of human structures for their own sake; NGOs in the ‘hows’, from an already decided perspective.

    So an NGO might want to know, say, how different forms of aid impact the nutrition of children in families, wanting to know which method to develop/ fund and to be able to decide quickly before the money or political will move on. On the same topic an academic might want to question every single assumption (what is ‘a family’? is aid a type of gift, and do gifts alter social relations, or adapt to existing ones? what is the long history of food circulation in the area, and how does it link to other global, local, national processes? what is ‘national’ anyway – is there such a thing as a state and how did it come about?), and will not assume they can come up with the answers before longterm engagement in the topic/ area, or decide on a course of action before the research has happened. It’s not ‘sluggish’ as you call it, it’s a basic principle.

    People will have their own opinions on which is more valuable (and both sides are certainly capable of producing crap research), but I don’t think it is useful to compare NGO and academic research directly or to suggest the latter can always be ‘boiled down’ to provide action points for the former. A big question: does knowledge always have to lead to ‘policy and practice’? As an anthropologist with a development background who has worked in an institution specifically designed to ‘broker knowledge’ between the two, this is a big assumption from the development side that I think needs to be put to rest. Sometimes knowledge that ‘just stays on the shelf’ (constant gripe from former colleagues) is doing fine work right there in that journal article or book, informing the minds of those who read it or teach it – not all knowledge needs to lead to a ‘measurable outcome’. Or, I would argue, to be easily understandable by people outside the intended audience. Yes, ideally there should be a summary/ a blogpost/ a video post or whatever, but some research just is complex and better suited to long written texts. It’s not wrong for academics to be talking to each other using specialised language, as you imply.

    Of course there are academics who concentrate on applied work and all are capable of doing other types of research – reactive, solution-driven, rapid, evaluative or whatever – but please don’t start with the assumption that all research is there to serve the interests of ‘development’. It is not and should not be.

    • Duncan Green

      thanks Adrian, we really need an equivalent of Google Images, where you click on a quotation, and it tells you who (if anyone) originally said it!

  2. Alice Evans

    This post largely suggests that academics and NGO workers would collaborate effectively if only they met up more. Networking is undoubtedly a good idea: listening to and learning from diverse perspectives.

    But what if NGOs and academics have different goals? In the first of the trilogy you suggested that academics are more concerned with ground-breaking discoveries, whereas NGOs just wanted to get it right. I think you’re right: academics and NGOs may have different objectives, and this may impede collaboarations. But I wouldn’t tar academics as glamour-seeking show-ponies.

    Another potential difference, between (some) academics and NGOs, is that academics are trained to be open-minded, not assume anything. This is our modus operandi. We also have an incentive for methodological and analytical rigour: our output is strictly monitored by scathing reviewers.

    Some NGO workers might be similarly open-minded, and concerned to ensure effective programming. But perhaps not all? There is the possibility of left-wing group-think and less organisational emphasis on rigour per se. Are incentives for methodological and analytical rigour built into organisational structures at NGOs? When some NGOs do M&E, they focus on outputs (workshops held), not outcomes. Or perhaps they just collect ‘success stories’? This may lessen the incentive for NGO workers to pursue rigorous and carefully nuanced analysis. NGOs also have fewer resources for in-depth research, so may take shortcuts, preferring to spend the big bucks on programming.

    I’ll illustrate with 3 examples that I may have heard from colleagues…

    (1) A researcher undertakes an RCT evaluation of a programme. An NGO puts out an advert for qualitative research on this programme, which already presumes the programme is ineffective.

    (2) An NGO plans a big campaign on accountability. They consult an academic, who advises them that such data is quite misleading, not very helpful, and potentially has adverse impacts. The NGO (understandably) understands this, but doesn’t want to spend money on undertaking more research. They just want to go ahead with their campaign, hold the organisations accountable.

    (3) An NGO seeks advice on programming. They want to do some workshops on X. The academic (who is quite knowledgeable in this field) advises that workshops can only have a very minimal impact. Really they should do Y. But the NGO is familiar with workshops and has funds to do them this year. They certainly don’t want to do Y any time soon, it requires too many big organisational/ programming changes. They proceed with X, for several years. And this is fine for them, as no one will ever hold them accountable for not doing Y.

    These are just 3 examples. And of course, this is a crude dichotomy: doubtless there are as many NGO workers concerned with rigorous, nuanced analysis, just as there are shoddy academics.

    But a shift in organisational incentives towards M&E may increase NGO workers’ engagement with careful, nuanced rigorous analysis, thereby motivating more effective collaboration with academics. (Obviously I’m not suggesting a monolithic focus on ‘Value For Money’. We all know this can be crude and misleading).

    In short, incentives matter; these may be different for academics and NGOs; so align the two more.

  3. Great comments, Alice!

    I am certainly not a fan of the HBR, but a recent piece on “Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem” ( highlights some issues that are worth introducing to this debate. The article is about inner-organizational collaboration fatigue at the workplace, but not entirely irrelevant for this discussion:
    “There is much to like—and dread—about collaboration in the workplace. We have all grown weary of the needless meetings, unnecessary emails and other unproductive interactions associated with collaboration at work. Excess collaboration saps energy and leaves employees with too little time to complete their work during the day, forcing too many workers to spend time playing catch-up after hours and on weekends. But it is possible to capitalize on the benefits of collaboration while reducing its ill effects. Doing so requires examining the whole organization—its structure, processes and cultural norms—and treating the root causes of collaboration overload and not merely finding new, inventive ways to manage the symptoms.”
    I already have limited time for my research and always get hesitant when “collaboration”-usually unpaid, so not visible in the budget, is on the table. So any collaboration needs to include “alone time”-time where I can analyze data, write a draft paper or prepare a lecture/Seminar on the findings of the collaboration. It’s not as simple as “NGOs need a reflection space” and “Academics need an action space outside the ‘ivory tower'”.
    Another aspect , at least here in Sweden is, that there is a strong emphasis in treating students equally-put bluntly, either all 10 of my MA students can write their thesis in connection with an NGO-or none (there is space for discussions, but you get the idea of “fairness”)-so “just send one student to the NGO” is easier said than done. I also interpret my role in the way that I should not dedicate too much time to one institution-I am happy to talk to almost any organization-but I’m not your NGO’s advisor and my research is ideally independent from NGO access or data. So as much as I am happy to engage-online, in person, in my seminars inviting guests-I need “me-time” which may sound selfish, but is necessary to maintain core academic and research values-and it’s a scarce resource in today’s academia…