By Kate Gooding
We had lots of really useful discussions at the second seminar, focused on establishing and sustaining partnerships. One aspect that I found interesting was thinking through conditions that enabled the case study partnership. While there were inevitably challenges, the university and NGO did work together to produce research that has informed practice, and they feel each partner made an essential contribution. During my PhD research with NGOs in Malawi, I heard about several examples of collaboration with academics, some progressing well and others stalling. These examples helped to suggest some of the conditions that can affect whether and how partnerships work. A few aspects that seemed relevant for the Rethinking Partnerships case study, focusing on the seminar theme of getting partnerships started:
1. Capacity among both partners. In the seminar case study, the NGO had time to engage in discussions about partnership. That’s not always the case, particularly in NGOs without any dedicated research staff or where staff time is all tied to existing projects (often the case in small or local NGOs that depend on project funding). Without some spare capacity to think about research, to develop relationships and to negotiate plans, potential academic collaborations may not get off the ground. The academic partner in the seminar example also had capacity, including motivation, time and skills to engage with NGOs in applying for funding. Again this capacity isn’t available in all academic institutions. Discussions in Malawi suggested that it can be harder to find an academic partner who is willing and able to develop research plans in settings where academics depend on consultancy fees (making unfunded academic input less feasible, and perhaps reducing the incentive to pursue grants), and where academics’ skills in research and proposal development are more limited.
2. Openness to partnership among NGO staff. NGOs vary in their attitudes towards collaboration with academics. Aspects that seem to affect NGO interest in academic partnership include the overall organisational ethos (whether this emphasises independence or partnership); internal research capacity (and so the added value of and need for academics’ skills, time and potentially funding); and past experience of collaboration (positive or negative). In the seminar case study, the NGO partner was keen to work with academics, perhaps reflecting positive past experience, a need for academic research skills and a view of academic collaboration as a useful way to generate evidence. There was also a shared interest in the research topic. Again that’s not always the case: I heard of several examples where NGOs saw academics’ suggestions for research as impractical or otherwise irrelevant, reducing scope for collaboration.
3. Availability of funding that covered research and service delivery. The case study project involved delivering services and using these services as a basis for research. Difficulty in finding grants that fund both implementation and research can limit opportunities for NGO-academic collaboration in this kind of operational research. NGO staff I spoke to felt their service delivery donors were often interested in research, but less willing to fund it. Including a research budget line within service delivery plans was seen as making proposals uncompetitive (it also clashed with NGOs’ priority of using available funds to provide services). Funding streams that focus on research can be harder for NGOs to apply for, particularly when staff have limited research experience. Grants like the one in the case study example, which combine funding for service delivery and research, seem to provide useful opportunities for NGO and academic partnerships that make use of complementary strengths. It would be interesting to hear about other people’s experience in this area, including donor willingness to support research as part of funding focused on programme development, and availability of funds that cover both service delivery and research.
We talked about a wide range of other conditions during the seminar, some affecting establishment of partnerships and others affecting the progress and outcomes. I look forward to discussing further aspects in later seminars.