7 reasons why Nonprofits need to invest in research

Ask any nonprofit organization, why they need research, and possibly pat will come the reply, well to get funding of course. Some replies may verge on sarcasm on donors holding the key to survival of the organization and some will hint on the possibility of loss of employment. The research and funding relationship can be very simply written in the equation form as “Evidence = Funding:”

The fact of the matter is that nonprofits are not sellers of products or services, they are development or change agents. That agency needs to be measured and evaluated on some performance matrix so as to assure their patrons, governments and society at large that their contribution to society is indeed authentic, impacting and sustainable.

The direct relationship of research or evidence to funding should therefore not be the only reason why nonprofits need to invest in research. In fact research needs to be an integral part of an nonprofit’s organizational structure. Given below are 7 reasons why nonprofits need to invest in research.

  1. It helps to clarify the overall vision and mission for the organization. Each organization is different and even though they may work in certain common thematic broad areas, how they work individually can be very different. To take an example, women empowerment can be a broad overarching goal for an organization, but it has to be fine- tuned so as to be able to spell out how the organization is going to reach out to create impact for potential beneficiaries.
  2. Specific interventions for particular projects and their stakeholders in identified geographical areas need to be adequately designed to account for what will work and what will not. This requires a theory of change for each particular project or program. A comprehensive literature review helps to clarify and identify the assumptions used for formulating the theory of change and the likely trajectory of change for beneficiaries.
  3. To be able to measure change or impact, it is required to formulate appropriate indicators to keep track of the inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. Simply saying that the project will have an impact on the knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) of beneficiaries, is not enough because one also has to formulate a construct that measures the KAP in that context. This requires intensive research and validation for each concept and construct along with devising appropriate measurement scales.
  4. There are some organizations that work directly with the stakeholders, but there are others who rely on a host of partners to reach across to the ultimate beneficiary. Each of these field organizations are bound to have different organizational structure and operating philosophies. Therefore the need to ensure some kind of alignment as per the goals and objectives of the program through monitoring of their functional and operating processes and outputs.
  5. A fair number of nonprofits are involved in advocacy campaigns related to various citizen or community related causes. For these organizations too, research is vital to give insights about the community that they work with. This can relate to their social, cultural and demographic structure, their economic situation and their concerns on the phenomena that affects their lives in positive or negative ways.
  6. Each nonprofit requires active engagement with its constituents including the need to magnify their presence. Social media therefore is an integral and important part of their communication strategy especially if the organization is involved in advocacy campaigns related to human rights, environment, sustainability, women causes that by their nature are mass based. This also holds true for disaster relief organizations. There is thus a trying need to be able to track the reach and impact of social media as well as do a commensurate sentiment analysis of the same. Research related to communication strategies is therefore extremely important. In fact nonprofits that use behavioral communication or more aptly called social behavior change communication invest enormously in researching how communication can lead to behavior change.
  7. While most research is devoted to program design, delivery and evaluation, it is equally important to research the donor community and the level of financial support they provide. This is especially true when nonprofits rely on multiple donors and not just few institutional donors. Donors can be categorized in multiple ways, among them being the forms of contribution, the quantum, the geographical segregation, and as per cause.

All organizations need research, the nonprofit can then be no different. Unfortunately, donors and philanthropists focus majority of their budgets on programmatic interventions leaving only a very small portion for research. This often is so meager that it scarcely allows for robust monitoring and evaluation systems. In most cases, program expenditure will inevitably scavenge on the research one. Funding tied to evidence is no doubt extremely important but nonprofits themselves need research to understand their own work and its impact which can be include both intended outcomes as well as unintended outcomes. Constant listening on the ground is critical to their own growth strategy and alignment to the organizations’ vision and mission. Hence, all nonprofits must keep a dedicated budget for research regardless of the type and size.

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