Why are NGOs and Academics collaborating more?

August is a good month for getting people to step back and take stock – those who are not on holiday have fewer meetings, and so are more relaxed andpeer review placard available for shooting the breeze.

And so I found myself at the London International Development Centre this week in one of those periodic soul searchings about how to get NGOs and researchers to work together more and better. Some observations:

I’ve posted before on this topic, but this time there was a sense that things are changing – a number of academics seem to have moved beyond seeing NGOs as just sources of data and dissemination of their findings, and NGOs are more interested in joint research. Lots of stories of deep collaboration, and probably a need to map such examples and see what can be learned from them.

Two new drivers stand out as reasons for this increased level of interest – from the NGO side the demands from funders that they sharpen up on evidence and results; from the academics, the pressure (in the UK anyway) to demonstrate the impact of their work in order to guarantee future research funding through the Research Excellence Framework exercise (which is driving everyone nuts at the moment). There are some pots of money from DFID, ESRC etc backing this up, eg Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises.

These new pressures are additional to pre-existing ones – academics’ personal commitment to change, plus a desire to get access to guinea pigs and data for their theories; NGOs’ desire to have more impact, solve problems and generally understand what the hell is going on.

What emerged for me were some do’s and don’ts:

–          Individual bilateral relationships between NGO folk and academics seem more durable and useful. It means you know who you trust and respect in advance, and so can pick up the phone when the need arises. How can we deepen and broaden such networks, given how busy everyone already is? It takes time and investment, but who is going to fund it? ‘No-one’s investing in the air quality of the relationships’.

–          Having a bit of cash, and the mental space to try stuff out, as we did with IDS on food prices – an initial £30k collaboration that led to a much bigger DFID-funded joint research programme

–          The clearer the joint purpose, the more likely it is to work out (eg Sightsavers’ Trachoma Mapping project, but also, arguably, the various post-2015 collaborations)

–          Beyond research, a lot of universities are now exploring training as a way of raising cash and using their expertise in more practical ways. Advocacy training emerged as a possibility (although I’ve never found academic papers on advocacy very convincing.)

What doesn’t work (at least in my experience)

–          I’m a bit sceptical of database-type clearing houses – ignores the issue of how to build trust. That said, it depends how they are done. Oxfam has had a good experience with the Research Matching Facility a dating agency where we were able to air a problem (improving methodology for field staff impact assessment) and then interview potential academic partners to help solve it (we went with UEA and are very happy with the partnership)

–          Academics trying to park their students with you, usually in August when everyone is on holiday (or in blue-sky sessions like this one). A lot of work needed to align student and NGO needs.

–          Grandiose  attempts to forge strategic partnerships from scratch (although building on existing links might work).

research with impactThere were useful suggestions for building deeper ‘evidence literacy’ among NGO staff who currently can fall into two equally unhelpful extremes: ignore evidence in favour of personal preference, or place unwarranted faith in hard numbers, however dodgy their provenance. In a classic example of NGOs’ tendency to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ on stuff they don’t really understand, evaluation academics reported that they get loads of NGO demand for numbers, but barely a flicker on process evaluation or realtime accompaniment – the things they are currently interested in exploring. ‘Everyone’s OK with the expensive household survey, but not research for learning.’

The role of research funders in all this has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, things like rapid response funding to enable researchers and NGOs to seize opportunities, but on the negative a resistance to learning approaches that emphasise qualitative methodologies and responding to events (it really messes up your logframe).

Some intriguing suggestions for how to tackle this. Given that DFID is so influenced by the big foundations like Gates and Wellcome, who may be more willing to innovate/ less risk averse (no ferocious backbenchers looking over their shoulders), people reckoned the way to shift thinking may be to target the Foundations first, rather than go straight for Government. Anyone got a decent influencing strategy for ushering Gates along the road to mixed methods, qualitative rigour and learning by doing?

So how do we build the density of relationships? Standard academic conferences are coma-inducing. I’ve been pushing speed dating (no you can’t read anything into that): 10 x 2 minute pitches instead of 1 x 20 minute panel presentation, then plenty of time for people to chat to the ones they were most interested in – a combination of Open Mike and Happy Hour.

Our recent data dive (blog in the works on that from some of the participants) might offer a model for non-data work as well – a brainstorm model,evidenceaiming at finding specific answers to real problems (eg what do we do about the climate change driven appearance of frost in Zambia?), generating funding proposals (money talks) or pilot projects. Could funders convene such things, with a promise to look kindly on the results?

I cynically wondered if post REF, the normal academic incentive system would kick in and working with NGOs would become frowned on again, but the accies in the room assured me that impact is here to stay, and with it the importance of academics learning to work with partners who can communicate in more accessible terms than they can, (which often means NGOs).

Top candidates for greater collaboration?

–          Find better ways to involve students (Masters and/or Doctoral)

–          The MEL/evidence/results agenda

–          Training (but I’m sceptical about advocacy)

–          Longitudinal work – we need to do it, but need help designing, funding and following through

–          Realtime accompaniment: embed a researcher with some of our programme work and let them observe the real process of chaos and improvisation, rather than the retrospective coherence of a post hoc evaluation

All in all, a useful exchange and some good materials are available. Check out ELRHA’s Guide to Constructing Effective Partnerships (v practical and user-friendly) and INTRAC’s briefing note, based on its ‘Cracking Collaboration’ initiative.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


11 Responses to “Why are NGOs and Academics collaborating more?”
  1. Dom Haslam

    Thanks Duncan, agree it was a good meeting. Two things in particular I couldn’t agree more on

    1) Need to work together to develop a framework for student placements that works for both groups (NGOs wanting SLRs, students wanting access to people to study). With my very ex student hat on that would include some good practice guidance on the T&Cs too…

    2) post 2015 collaborations on evidence have been pretty useful to date, certainly for the Beyond 2015 campaign and to plug, please all comment on our evidence-based (and other) values at http://www.beyond2015.org/document/values ok plug over.

    One thing to add: the need to explore joint advocacy by academics and NGO staff (agree, no training please) rather than the traditional “academics provide the evidence, NGOs pick the bits that fit their existing messages and use them to advocate”. Working together might help bridge that gap and help academics provide evidence that is useful and help NGOs to use it, better…

    If we’re speaking together, it could also provide an opportunity to persuade others that evidence other than numbers can be just as powerful.

  2. James Smith

    This is an excellent piece, although I think you might overstate the influence of the Research Excellence Framework. Whilst it might concentrate minds re impact most of the case studies being put together will make use of research that was completed years ago (as it should, such is the nature of impact). What is needed is consistency and hopefully impact will remain central to future assessments.

    I also agree that student placements are key. There is nothing less productive (or disgruntled) than a ‘parked student’. The best placements are the well planned ones, and I think implementing structures that develop academics or practitioners who are comfortable working in and talking between both academia and the NGO sector is crucial is partnerships are driven from the bottom rather than through the vagaries of future research assessment exercises.

  3. Thanks Duncan.

    In the UK, research has a central place. This is probably thanks to the funding of DFID, which creates a whole ecosystem where research is taken seriously en where research is relevant for the development actors.

    I fear this is not the case in most countries. The mindset of independent learning is very much absent in a lot of donor and NGO-administrations. Research and innovation comes often top-down, through DFID policy initiatives. This leads to a lack of different options and approaches, as everybody seems to jump on only a few bandwagons.

    Indeed, you hear envy form this side.

  4. Kaustubh Devale

    Thank you, Duncan for the thought provoking piece analyzing the drivers of the increasing collaboration between NGOs and academics. I agree with the two drivers mentioned, which are at the core of this enhanced engagement between the two. Yes, obtaining resources or at least increasing the probability of availing resources might be at the core of the increased collaboration. Using a reductionist lens, I think that a distinct division / line between NGOs and academics is perceived in the development sector as such wherein NGOs are considered as “doers” (“action persons”) while academics are considered as “thinkers” (“theoretical persons”). Amongst very few NGOs and academics does one see a genuine praxis approach of working in which evolving, engaging and exercising ideas occurs. Probably another candidate for greater collaboration would be: if efforts are made to overcome the division / line between the perceived roles of both the NGOs and academics then both would benefit. For me then the question is, are both set of actors ready for this shift in perspective?

  5. Indeed, really great blog! I couldn’t agree more on the need for “investing in the air quality of the relationships”. And the good news is that we are! T/AI launched the TALEARN community of practice in February. It not only brings together researchers and NGOs, but also funders so people can build trust, understanding, on-going working relationships and practical activities together in exactly the ways discussed.

    As well as an annual in-person get-together, we’re trying out different approaches to see what works, things like ‘virtual clinics’ where people get inputs on their questions from all three types of members, and ‘practice groups’ where they work together over time on tough questions. And the meetings are also sparking bilateral connections and projects – things like student placements.

    It’s very early days but we really hope this will help build practical bridges between academics, NGOs and funders in the transparency and accountability field.


  6. Kate

    Thanks for the post – sounds an interesting meeting. Will there be a full/formal report from it? (Couldn’t see it mentioned on the LIDC website but sorry if I missed it.)

    Agree that advocacy training by academics sounds a bad idea. There’s more than enough advocacy training around already, and funding can be a bigger constraint than skills when it comes to using research findings in advocacy. Anyway, advocacy training by academics would just be a bit weird given the uncertainty among many researchers about whether they are/should be doing advocacy. Did you talk about academics helping to build research skills in NGOs (beyond the evidence literacy i.e. also designing/producing research)? Maybe scope for mentoring linked to the accompaniment you mention.

    Any discussion about partnerships between academics and NGOs in developing countries? Seems harder from what I’ve seen – little flexible funding on either side, without the REF/impact incentives, capacity and quality issues etc.

  7. Hi there

    I agree, what a great blog. Evidence Aid has been trying, since funding became available in 2010, to engage strongly with aid agencies, NGOs, funders, and academics so that all views are taken on board.

    Our ‘product’ (freely available evidence-based resources for those preparing for and responding to natural disasters, humanitarian crises and major healthcare emergencies) is aimed at various audiences and if we don’t collaborate with them, and don’t meet their needs, our work is wasted.

    We recently held a two day priority setting exercise bringing together around 30 people from our various audience types to see if consensus could be reached on 30 priority questions across the thematic areas we had identified (through a survey of more than 200 people). It worked and showed the value of cross-collaboration – not just between academics and NGOs, but also funders and independent consultants. We need to have more collaboration like this. This has led to three titles being registered with The Cochrane Collaboration, for systematic reviews in the disaster management field. A great outcome.

    I would also like to raise the issue of training. In 2012 we held a free of charge training event for humanitarian aid workers. It was held in an academic environment, but was not an academic lecture, or traditional training agenda. It used real world (for the aid workers) questions and looked at what evidence was, robustness of data, and bias. It was a small group with similar interests and at the end of the two-day event, there was much discussion of how this training could be transferred into the field.

  8. A real, live (3 year long) collaboration on impact assessment between academics and NGOs is indeed happening right now! The ART project (http://www.bath.ac.uk/cds/projects-activities/assessing-rural-transformations/index.html) is a DFID/ESRC funded project bringing together academics from the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath and the NGOs Self Help Africa, Farm Africa and Evidence for Development. The team is working together to develop a new impact assessment protocol (http://cdsblogs.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/the-state-of-the-art-project-update-1/), with everyone involved at all stages of the project – from design to implementation. The NGOs benefit from support assessing the impact of four new projects over three years, and the academic team benefit from the real experience of staff on the ground using the tools in a variety of contexts, implementing, learning and tweaking as we go. The collaborative nature of the project (imho) has taken out any potential hierarchical stuffiness that may accompany an academic/NGO relationship (“we’ve worked out what you need to do – go forth and implement”). I can’t recommend this type of collaboration highly enough and I hope we see more of it in the future…

  9. Sarah R

    Very interesting post but I was really hoping for a hyperlink here: “The MEL/evidence/results agenda” !

    I am daily trying to make headway on this in my own small way and would be fescinated to read your thoughts on the matter.

  10. Lucie Stokes

    I agree, a very interesting blog.

    Increased interaction and collaboration between NGOs and academia is certainly an area that Edinburgh University is working to develop.

    We offer over 100 placements each year to postgraduates with a specialisation in international development. Our goal is to facilitate collaborations at an earlier stage in the student’s academic training. Short-term MSc collaborations (8 weeks) often continue throughout the PhD, meaning graduates can effectively straddle both the academic and practical aspects of development work.

    The ELRHA Guide has some excellent suggestions for constructing partnerships.