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Three reflections on building research partnerships between academics and NGOs

Blog by Partnerships Manager Owain Johnstone.

Published: 25th July 2022

Supporting innovative and diverse research partnerships has been a key aim of the Modern Slavery PEC since its formation.

We encourage research teams applying to our funding calls to have a range of non-academic partners, which could be an NGO, statutory agency, business or other relevant organisation. We prioritise supporting these diverse partnerships to ensure that a wide range of perspectives and experiences are included in modern slavery research, which we believe leads to stronger evidence and more creative solutions. A particular priority is including the voices of those who have lived experience of modern slavery in research.

But we know it isn’t easy to set up and operate these kinds of research partnerships. There are many challenges that they have to overcome. The Modern Slavery PEC is doing everything it can to support these partnerships, build capacity across the sector to participate in them, and learn what works.

To support that, on 18 July 2022 the Modern Slavery PEC held a workshop to share reflections on the challenges and opportunities of creating equitable research partnerships between academic researchers and NGOs. ‘Equitable’ refers to the balance of power in a partnership. A civil society organisation might have less power because they are a partner (not the project lead), with a smaller proportion of the funding, and they may lack research expertise. The Modern Slavery PEC is taking steps to mitigate these potential power imbalances, for example by enabling NGOs to lead certain research projects that we fund.

The workshop included two case studies where speakers reflected on their experiences working in partnership on projects funded by the Modern Slavery PEC. Speakers included Dr Liz Such, Debbie Ariyo (Chief Executive of AFRUCA & Chair of the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network), Robin Brierley (Executive Director of the West Midlands Anti Slavery Network) and Lauren Saunders (Head of Policy & Research, Unseen).

Here are three key reflections from our work so far and from the discussion at the workshop.

1) A research partnership isn’t fixed, it’s something that takes shape over time.

It’s tempting to talk about a ‘research partnership’ as if it’s a fixed thing. But partnerships go through different stages and the challenges they face change over time.

From the first time that potential partners meet to discuss a project, through agreeing objectives, then applying for funding: there’s a lot that happens before a partnership is even formally in place. And we know that it takes time and commitment to get a partnership off the ground, often building on existing relationships.

Once a partnership is in place, carrying out research equitably and collaboratively is difficult. It’s important to be clear on what role each partner will play – every partner has unique expertise and brings something different to the table. It’s also important to be clear on who is responsible for each part of the work and who has the authority to speak on behalf of the whole team.

Once the research is complete, partnerships have to work together to communicate the findings to decision-makers and influence policies and practice. Partners need to agree on key influencing audiences from the start and what the best ways to reach them are; some partners will have more expertise in policy influencing than others.

Even after a project ends, partnerships can – and hopefully will – continue. Partners can develop an ongoing relationship and find further opportunities to collaborate on new research projects and influence key decision-makers.

2) Expect challenges.

It isn’t easy for partners from different sectors, with different incentives, resources and knowledge, to collaborate in an equitable way on a research project. There are many potential challenges and obstacles. However, it is possible to overcome those and collaborate successfully.

For example, it can be difficult to identify a partner organisation from another sector, but research funders can help with this. The Modern Slavery PEC has established a Google Group which anyone interested in modern slavery research can join. The Group is a way for researchers and practitioners to find potential research partners.

Basic financial and logistical arrangements can be another challenge. Academic researchers work to a term-time schedule that may not be familiar to NGOs. Civil society organisations may not be able to accept payment in arrears, which is a normal arrangement for universities. Open communication between partners, supported by the research funder, can go a long way to resolving these issues.

Power imbalances are always a risk in any cross-sector partnership. But, if they are anticipated and confronted, teams can take steps to ensure they don’t affect relationships or the research. How teams do this will depend on the project and the partners involved.

3) Communication is key.

What is research for? What does good research look like? How should directly affected groups be involved? Academic researchers and practitioners might have different answers to all these questions. That’s not a problem as long as all partners communicate openly and transparently with one another.

The language that partners use might be different as well. Using the wrong word might be confusing or even damaging, so it’s important to recognise the different understandings and expectations that may exist across the academic and civil society communities.

Clear roles and responsibilities within the project team depend on clear communication. So does the relationship between the team and the research funder. It’s vital that the project partners meet regularly and also that they have regular contact with the research funder. There should be clear and agreed points of contact on all sides.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to equitable and collaborative research partnerships between academics and practitioners. Every partnership is different and must find its own ways of working. But by thinking through the challenges that we know can come up, and learning from the experiences of others, teams can ensure that they are as well-equipped as possible to engage in truly equitable and collaborative partnership working.

Event: watch and listen

Watch the recording of event below or listen to it in a podcast format.