Last week, this duck crossed the pond to attend the British International Studies Association (BISA) NGO Working Group workshop on Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Global Governance. The workshop convened scholars of NGOs as well as NGO practitioners to consider the practice and changing landscape of global governance as well as the role of NGOs therein. A highlight was an interactive session during which we discussed the recent BOND–the UK membership body for organizations working in international development–report Fast Forward: The Changing Role of UK-based INGOs. The rich discussion generated plenty of ideas to talk about, but today I focus on just one: How can academics support and strengthen data collection and research methodology in NGOs?

This question, posed by BOND, is not unlike the heated debates currently occurring in the discipline on the policy relevance and public value of political science. Yet, to date, we have mostly debated how to be more policy relevant for policy-makers (who often fund our research), rather than how to work with less powerful groups like NGOs. What the Working Group discussion made clear though was that NGOs need us! The challenge is to figure out how to transfer capacities and skills to enable and support the work of NGOs. Here’s the NGO practitioner wish list:

  1. NGOs do not have the qualitative or quantitative skills necessary for proper data analysis. Workshop attendees expressed that they felt that their data and evidence lacked credibility without these methodological skills.
  2. NGOs do not have access to gated academic journals that most of us publish in.
  3. NGOs are often pressed for time and need the report done yesterday; they perceive that the academic and NGO worlds work at different speeds.
  4. NGOs would like more forums where they can interact and connect with academics.

So, what are some possible solutions to bridge the gap between NGOs and academics and build NGO capacities? One promising model is the UK-based organization Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) whose objective is to  support partnerships between researchers and practitioners to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action. ELRHA’s Effective Partnerships workshops are interactive forums that foster relationships between academics and practitioners. Interestingly, the new definition of “impact” adopted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England incentivizes collaborating with practitioners in ways that our current system of tenure in the U.S. does not.

Another possibility is for professional organizations, such as APSA, MPSA, and ISA, to form partnerships with NGO umbrella organizations like BOND, InterAction, or Coordination Sud to match academics with NGOs who require specific expertise or methodological skill sets.

On a smaller scale, professors who teach classes on NGOs or NGO management can partner with local NGOs to design experiential, service-learning projects for their students. In my graduate-level NGO Management class, I partner with the Philadelphia-headquartered American Friends Service Committee; students complete semester-long projects proposed by the AFSC that range the gamut from program evaluations to strategic planning to research on best practices. Students hone their developing management and research skills, while the AFSC benefits from theory-informed practice, social science perspectives, and robust research. It is a win-win for all involved!

Finally, unless academic journal policies change drastically, NGO scholars should continue to disseminate their research via blog posts, open-access journals and practitioner-oriented publications to reach a broader audience that includes NGO practitioners.

What are some other ways that academics can share their research, skills and expertise with NGOs?