5 recommendations for a research partnership that works for all involved

28 November 2017
Author: Kate Newman

Academics are under pressure to show “impact” in their research, while NGOs are under pressure to rigorously evidence their work. These two pressures have led to partnerships between the two groups becoming increasingly popular in the last few years.

Exploring these partnerships, a group of INGO and university staff have produced Rethinking Research Partnerships: discussion guide and toolkit. The toolkit is designed to reflect the processes of designing, implementing, analysing and communicating research, with the aim of making research more inclusive and more impactful. It touches on a range of aspects of partnership and evidence. 

Five recommendations from the process

1. Take care of the relationship

Each partner will have their own motivations, expectations and assumptions as they enter a partnership. It is important to be clear about these from the beginning and to monitor them over the life of the partnership to ensure that they still hold. If things have changed, adapt as necessary.  

2. Production of “evidence” is key 

The pressure on academics to have “impact” and NGOs to produce “evidence” creates many of the assumptions that shape partnerships, such as what “good evidence” looks like and whose responsibility it is to design research, collect data, analyse findings and create outputs. There can be many good reasons for challenging these default roles, including building skills and capacity in both institutions, valuing different types of evidence or because of a specific ambition to challenge wider assumptions.

3. Consider the context  

The UK external environment creates specific interests and shapes expectations of what evidence will be produced and for whom. But while it is important to understand the context, the response to it is not pre-determined. In some of the case studies in Rethinking Research Partnerships the partnership evolved precisely to challenge context expectations, whereas for others decisions were made by a need to service particular trends and priorities in the current environment.

4. Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes but people are pivotal 

Whatever the size and scale, partnership working relies on individual connections, shared visions, personal relationships and an individual in each institution committed to making things work. The role of “partnership broker” – a person able to listen and translate across organisational boundaries, who understands the language and pressures of both institutions, and smooths the way for partnerships to flourish - is crucial.

5. “Productive tensions” make partnership working worthwhile 

“Productive tensions”, arising because of the differences between partners, are a key asset. They bring together different ways of working and thinking about issues, and develop new skills, relationships and interests. These differences open up space for new ways of thinking and doing, and allow partners to be creative and explore alternatives. Valuing difference is key to enabling partnerships to be more than the sum of their parts. 

Recent discussions in the UK suggest that research partnerships will become more prevalent, as UK INGOs shift their role and offer to the international development arena, and as the GCRF provides greater incentives and opportunities for such collaborations. We hope that the guide will inspire you to reflect on your research partnership experiences, to explore and potentially challenge your own assumptions and to feel confident in entering into different types of research partnership.

Find out more about Christian Aid's research by following them on Twitter: @caid_research

About the author

Kate Newman
Christian Aid

Kate Newman is co-head of research, evidence and learning at Christian Aid. She joined Christian Aid in 2013 after completing her PhD on the challenges and dilemmas of integrating participatory and rights-based approaches to development.