Values, confidence, and time: What researchers should consider when engaging with civil society organisations

By William L. Allen

William L. Allen (biography)

When researchers want to engage or work with groups outside universities—especially civil society organisations—what should they consider as part of this process?

Civil society comprises organisations—large and small—that are outside of the public and private sectors. These include non-governmental organisations, charities, or voluntary groups.

Three lessons emerged from asking civil society organisations what they would tell academics who want to work with them:

  1. researchers should make room for discussions about values (their own as well as those held by others) as they design their projects.
  2. researchers should consider how their plans can develop skills and confidence in civil society organisation participants as they handle research outputs in the course of their work.
  3. since all of these activities depend on the unique mixes present in each project, researchers should build time throughout the project to both develop shared goals and reflect on outcomes.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Values and missions
Many civil society organisations express some set of core values or guiding principles. These may direct the organisation’s activities, set their priorities, and establish what they will or won’t do to achieve their goals. Sometimes, these organisations talked about their ‘theory of change’ or how they saw what they were doing—campaigning, advocacy, policy analysis—having a positive impact in their field.

So, when researchers hope to engage with these groups, they inevitably will encounter these values and assumptions that will open opportunities, as well as close off some possibilities. Furthermore, researchers themselves should consider their own motivations and principles. These worldviews and missions matter because they can shape the direction and tone of the work that lies ahead.

Confidence with research
Many civil society organisations, especially ones with fewer staff or resources, face difficulties in engaging with technical research outputs—for example, statistical bulletins, publicly available datasets, or complicated methods. Handling and interpreting these sources can be time-consuming and confusing, possibly putting off staff-members who otherwise would be interested in the findings. So, another lesson is that academics should actively find ways to build up participants’ confidence with these kinds of outputs. This helps build a two-way relationship, and both groups benefit.

Time to plan, learn, reflect
Even with a good understanding of all participants’ values, their skills (and gaps in those skills to fill), and the wider context in which these engagements happen, it takes time to transform this understanding into relevant, effective practices that actually work for all involved. The mixes of people, contexts, resources, and motivations change—not only from one project to the next, but possibly within the same project. So, researchers should include time and opportunities throughout the project, but especially at the beginning, to learn from one another and foster shared understandings.

In short, what I’m arguing is that researchers critically reconsider how they build and develop their public engagement with groups outside universities, especially civil society organisations, with an eye towards the roles that less tangible factors like values, confidence, and time play in these processes.

What has your experience been in working with civil society organisations? Do you think these lessons from civil society organisations apply to other groups, such as policymakers, educators or the media? When you’ve engaged with groups outside universities, how did you identify and sustain effective practices?

To find out more:
Allen, W. L. (2016). Factors that impact how civil society intermediaries perceive evidence. Evidence and Policy. Online (DOI): 10.1332/17442646X14538259555968.
This paper was awarded the 2016 Carol Weiss Prize.
Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until 28 March 2017.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:

Biography: William Allen (@williamlallen) is a Research Officer with the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) and The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. His research examines the links among media, policy-making and public perceptions about migration issues. He is also interested in how people outside university settings engage with migration data, research, and statistics through data visualisation.

10 thoughts on “Values, confidence, and time: What researchers should consider when engaging with civil society organisations”

  1. Thanks for this very concise description of three of the key things anyone seeking to collaborate (I believe not only with Civil Society but any groups) needs to address: values, confidence (especially less well resourced groups, as you say) and time. I think an awareness and exploration of different organisational cultures (and the values that accompany them) is vital to collaboration. I explore this here: Boosting confidence of less resourced groups (especially in terms of skills and knowledge) is again vital. I think there is also a need to take a step back sometimes and make sure some groups have the necessary communication, presentation and communications skills to contribute confidently and appropriately within a collaborative context. Lastly, giving the collaborative process time is extremely important, especially within the first few months of a collaboration coming together. I believe there is a specific process or dynamic taking place within collaborations at this time, and I explore this hear:

    • Thanks for the feedback, Charles! You make a good observation that these lessons extend to other contexts where researchers and those they may engage with try to work together.

  2. I wonder why it has to be ‘argued’ that the values of those who are stakeholders or shareholders matter? I do not claim that the advice to do so is not good (e.g. to be respectful – wonderful!), but what is it that makes researchers apparently undervalue these values or even the people who live by them?
    Surely the advice implies that something is not happening that should be happening? Is it because the research that is going to be done to them and on them assumes that they have no values and are not persons?
    As advices go, they sound a bit like sales tricks to make the ‘subjects’ feel happy so they voluntarily contribute to our research …
    Is there anything a bit stronger than advice, e.g. ways of research that are designed to treat others so their values are respected?

    • Hi Gerard, thanks for adding your thoughts. I think the organisations I spoke with raised ‘values’ as a way of talking about the intangible motivations that guided their work, influenced their decisions, or opened up (as well as constrained) possible avenues of collaboration with researchers. It goes beyond ‘being respectful’ which should come as standard, or suddenly ‘discovering’ that people have values in the first place. Instead, being aware of values partly means understanding how these organisations, and the people within them, see the world and how their activities fit into (or change!) the world.

      In terms of ways of research, one small example from my own work involves ‘talking mats’, a method that allows participants to visually express (and change) their feelings on a topic. Instead of assuming shared values, building time into any research activity for actually establishing these motivations would be a good start. Perhaps there are other readers who have other practical examples from their own work?

      Thanks again for the thoughts!

      • Thanks for the reply. The point I am making is well expressed in what you write: “being aware of values partly means understanding how these organisations, and the people within them, seen the world and how their activities fit into (or change) the world.”
        This was what actually helped to raise my original question: if the above is the case, how come research does not provide that understanding already (remember: the official stance on scientific method is that it should facilitate understanding and prediction)?
        I agree that there are approaches to help provide that understanding. Those like your ‘talking mats’ are in fact twelve to a dozen. There are thousands of them reported. Examples include Appreciative Inquiry, Action Research, Interactive Management, SSM, TSI, Kotter’s 8 steps, etc.
        Most of them claim to be a form of research. The claim is repeated so often, however, that doubt creeps in: are they a form of research or something else? Maybe this doubt is unfounded … maybe not …

        Anyway, there seems to be a dilemma: either one applies the (original) scientific method and sweet talks organisations into believing that it aims to help understanding their values, knowing that it fails to deliver, or one applies some other method that incorporates these values, but that does not share the main characteristics of the scientific method (like testing, having a product that is not localised (as in the case of your talking mats), etc.).
        Maybe the dilemma is just there – and there isn’t a way out. Maybe there is a way out – but only for those who believe. I wonder.

        • Thanks for the reply, Gerard! If I understand your points correctly, there are two concerns. One, specific to the forms of research we engage in, is the value these techniques / methods have for providing understanding. On this point, I might consider asking whether the goal is ‘scientific’ understanding in the way you’re using it: as in, testable hypotheses that can be supported or rejected. Is this always the goal for research? Or, can research describe, engage, or invite critique among participants, too?

          Two, and related, is your dilemma of either being scientific or ‘actually’ trying to get at these intangible values somehow. I’d cautiously respond by saying that what my own project tried to do was challenge an extractive model of research by inviting participants to reflect on what they’d say to researchers themselves. I think this simple, humble first step is important to recognise as part of conventional ‘research design’, as well. Collaborative work that is reflective, time-sensiitve, and self-critical in taking on some of the critiques you’ve mentioned, might be a way to address this dilemma you raise.

          • Thanks. I see what you are trying to say. Research can be anything you wish. That is fine with me.

            There is still the dilemma, though. You argue that in order to do research you have to take into account that organisations are not mechanisms, but have objectives, need to be treated with respect, etc. My original question was why is that: is treating people with respect just a sweetener so you don’t have to be treat them with respect during the research? Or if treating them with respect is serious why make the distinction?

            it would appear that in your second paragraph there is no reason to make the distinction. This means that the first part of my question should not have been raised. Pity.

            • Hi Gerard, thanks for clarifying. I think that listening to these organisations’ perspectives–and accounting for the unique constraints and situations they find themselves in–achieves an important analytical point: these factors, which include indivdually-held values among others, leave some possible uses of (and engagement with) research open while closing others down. That, for me, is the distinction from just trying to entice groups to participate in research in name only.

  3. Great post! For additional insight into research-community partnerships, check out this two-part blog post written by Dr. Chris McBride (Executive Director, Spinal Cord Injury BC) entitled “Commitment issues: How to get my community organization to say yes to an integrated knowledge translation (KT) project”. The post provides practical tips and advice for researchers looking to partner with community organizations. A follow-up blog post, written by Dr. Heather Gainforth (Assistant Professor, University of British Columbia – Okanagan) shares the researcher’s perspective on how to ensure these collaborations are successful.

    [Moderator update – In November 2022, this link no longer available: msfhr[dot]org/news/blog-posts/commitment-issues-part-1]

    Also check out Chris McBride’s webinar as part of the KT Connects Knowledge Translation Webinar Series:


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