Meeting in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, India
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How can INGOs use research to drive their missions?

Research is more important than ever to international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), who need evidence to support their work and provide proof of their impact.

INGOs are increasingly turning to research as a resource for assessing and improving their activities, campaigns and projects, as well as their organisational structures and strategy.

My recent research (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) revealed so many ways that INGOs engage with research, from using existing research, and participating in research partnerships to conducting research in-house. To help organisations understand and learn from the rich and diverse landscape of research in the sector, Bond and the Open University have published a new report on engaging with research for real impact, which builds on the findings of this three-year study.

This report supports organisations to thoroughly consider their options for engaging with evidence and develop more strategic approaches to using, generating, communicating and supporting research. By showcasing a range of innovative examples of practice and exploring the many challenges involved in this complex work, I offer some guidance to those developing a research approach within their organisation.

3 ways INGO research is unique

The report identified three dimensions of research engagement, each with its own opportunities and challenges.

First, research governance in INGOs varies considerably with some tension identified between the different understandings of research, particularly in the larger INGOs.

In response, some organisations like Sightsavers have developed a formal research strategy [PDF] while others grounded their approach to research within an institutional culture, ethos or set of values. Other challenges include negotiating core funding for research, implementing culture change, and crucially, shifting power to field-offices or network partners in the global south.

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Second, INGO research practices are unconventional, unfolding in multiple spaces and across different timeframes. While INGO research generates a range of methods and outputs, these unconventional approaches demand new support systems.

Examples of these include Brooke’s development of an ethical review body [PDF] as well as new research infrastructure. Other challenges exist around creating “thinking spaces” and working remotely across languages and cultures. There’s also the challenge of balancing credible and accessible outputs, while balancing reputational risk with integrity and a learning-oriented ethos.

Third, INGO researchers differ from academic researchers and come from diverse backgrounds. As well as conventional research skills, other “research literacies” included the ability to broker diverse knowledge communities, provide mentoring support and communicate effectively.

To support their staff, INGOs such as Oxfam GB have developed research guidelines, while others such as Christian Aid’s Centre for Excellence in Research Evidence and Learning have developed training courses. However, there are still challenges around the unstructured nature of research career trajectories, as well as conflict around intellectual property when research is owned by the organisation rather than the individual. There is also a trade-off between building in-house research capacity or developing skills to support commissioning and collaboration and formal versus informal support systems.

Improving research engagement across the sector

The report also identifies a tension between the goals of peer-learning, collaboration and competition between INGOs. While competition is an inevitable response to the current resource-starved climate in the UK sector, it can lead to significant time wasting, with many organisations attempting to recreate the wheel rather than drawing on existing resources or pooling efforts. Partner organisations in the global south would also benefit from better consolidation of the rich range of existing resources.

In response, I’ve proposed some sector-wide initiatives to consolidate existing resources, develop standardised guidelines and formalise research support mechanisms.

INGO research can also make an important contribution not just to development and humanitarian work across the sector but to academia as well. With the recent investment of a significant portion of the UK’s ODA budget into higher education [PDF], universities are struggling with “ODA-compliance” against systems and structures that are not set up for research in complex development contexts. INGOs offer huge learning potential for ODA-funded research.

We’ll be exploring all of this further at the Bond Conference, where we’ll look at how research can better contribute to INGOs’ missions.