Raise the Bar: Connect Research to Practice

After a hiatus of several years, I recently attended the annual conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), a 1,300-member group of researchers affiliated with university-based nonprofit management programs.

After a hiatus of several years, I recently attended the annual conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), a 1,300-member group of researchers affiliated with university-based nonprofit management programs.

I was one of just a handful of non-academics at the event. I’ve been going to ARNOVA conferences off and on for about 20 years; it can be heavy going but it helps me keep my ear to the ground for hot topics and research trends in our field.

My odd-duck status as a lonely practitioner in a sea of academic researchers reflects the strange dichotomy between these contiguous but barely communicative worlds. Despite the fact that members of both groups have a great deal to gain from systematic information sharing, there are only a few tenuous national and local connections between the disciplines – publications like the Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Nonprofit Quarterly, as well as a scattering of community-oriented or applied-research academic programs.

ARNOVAns know this – hand-wringing about it has been a constant over the years – but rewards in the academic world are not based on how relevant or practical one’s research is but rather how publishable.

Taking Steps

To its credit, in October ARNOVA convened a two-day symposium of “scholars, policy analysts and practice leaders” with a goal of framing a research agenda designed to produce a better understanding of how public policy affects U.S. nonprofits. According to the preliminary report distributed at the November conference, participants identified 5 focal points for future research:

  • Different forms of nonprofit financing and their impact
  • Impact of regulatory and tax policies
  • New and emerging forms of “public serving” organizations
  • The roles of nonprofits in strengthening communities
  • The value proposition of the nonprofit sector

The symposium is an important step in the right direction for the academic nonprofit community. One can only hope that the notion of including the practitioner perspective in decisions about research priorities will eventually trickle down to enough ARNOVA members that they and their students produce more studies relevant to operating nonprofits. What I observed at this year’s conference was a decidedly mixed bag in that respect.

At one session, there was a lively, candid discussion on this topic. The consensus was that unless the academic tenure system is overhauled radically, nothing is going to change.

That means we’ll continue to see huge piles of research papers, complete with a full measure of technical jargon, charts and statistics, containing findings that anyone with a modicum of common sense already knows to be true. (I “learned”, for example, that among nonprofit employees there is a statistically significant correlation between passion for the organization’s mission and motivation on the job. Who knew?)

Still, there are some outstanding researchers in the field and the 2010 conference included a number of interesting presentations with potentially useful applications. The Urban Institute, for one, continues to produce a great deal of excellent work.

A few highlights:

  • One person said that in her program, Ph.D. students must explain in their thesis proposals what practical application their work will have. Sounds pretty basic, right? Yet for most folks in the room this was a radical proposition.
  • The Urban Institute is developing an Outcomes and Effective Practices Portal as an online, user-friendly, research-based evaluation tool for nonprofits and funders. Their bottom up approach is an effort to push back against the recent trend to focus on “high performing” nonprofits.
  • Credit where credit is due: one intrepid researcher is a Burning Man junkie – she’s gone to this huge counterculture event in the Nevada desert 11 times. Brilliantly, she turned this obsession into a career-advancing move by conducting research during several of her trips and publishing the results. (In fairness, her paper on storytelling was actually quite interesting.)

Moving from Lip Service to Concrete Actions

Ideally, all nonprofit research, whether done by academics or practitioners, should be linked to tangible outcomes that will have a positive impact on communities. That goal is probably not attainable,but the academic nonprofit world can do a lot better.

Currently there’s very little internal or external pressure on nonprofit researchers to make their work more relevant. Moving from lip service to concrete actions designed to bridge the gap between research and practice will require a commitment to the goal, followed by a reallocation of financial and human resources to community collaborations and capacity building.

For our part, practitioners can do more to reach out to nonprofit management, such as research partnerships, internships, joint programming, or cross-training. The adjacency of our worlds, the commonality of our missions and the urgency of the issues we confront present us with great potential for partnership.

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