I am a social researcher. Admittedly, I am biased. Having spent quite a lot of time as a social researcher and now being a lecturer on research methods to a bunch of graduate business school students, I quite like research, but I like to think that I am also grounded in what I am about to say. Like many of you who are youth workers, project coordinators, or even managers of small charities, I have spent many days and nights developing programmes and writing proposals to get funding for the next phase of the project. Also like many of you, I have lost count of the amount of time I spent looking for any threads of evidence to put in my applications just to show the funders why the project is needed. You might identify with me when I say that most of the time, I ended up frustratingly putting in only things like local deprivation statistics, ad-hoc observations, or anecdotal stories just to make my case.
To be fair to the funders, this is not just a form filling exercise. Funders genuinely want to know that they are funding the need. This has become more and more prominent with the idea of evidence-based approaches. We see that the Big Lottery is now specifically asking for people to identify and evidence needs or LankellyCase specifically asking for grant applications to make the case.
Evidence-Based Approach: The Prettier Sibling
Much more spotlight has been given to the idea that programmes must demonstrate measurable results/outcomes thanks to the work of Annie E. Casey Foundation, Aspen Institute, and United Way, giving the idea its life in the US, and thanks to people’s work like Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation and Graham Allen’s Early Intervention report to the UK parliament to give this idea its prominence in the US and UK respectively, or the work of NESTA, GLA, NPC (Inspiring Impact), or The Big Society Capital to begin the realisation of evidencing measurable results through evaluations on the ground. But the lesser-discussed idea (though not a new idea) is the idea of evidencing the need in evidence-based approaches. They are inevitably linked however. The logic would dictate that you need to know what the needs (problems) are in order to be able to come up with solutions that would successfully address the needs. So in other words, to be able to come up with solutions that have measurable results, surely, you would need to really know the true causes of the problems.
Do we really know our communities?
I do think that charities believe that they know the needs of their communities, but is that really the case with only things like local statistics of deprivation, ad-hoc observations, and anecdotal stories?
I think scrapping together statistics and anecdotal stories are no longer good enough. At best, we are not doing our communities justice by just citing the litany of deprivation statistics to point out the inadequacy of our communities (therein by insinuating the inadequacy of the people in our communities). It is disempowering and degrading. It doesn’t give thought to the potential of the people in our communities nor any credits or respect to existing assets. This frame of thinking only continues the downward spiral of disengaging our communities through disempowering identities.
At worst, we don’t actually know our communities. I am going to take a different route to make my case – Behavioural Economics. Theories behind ways to influence human behaviour had talked about one of human’s behaviour fallacies – representativeness heuristic. It seems that human minds tend to form meaningful patterns out of information that is in fact random. These included examples like false accounts of clusters of cancers in the communities or seeing coin toss results as non-random when it is simply because of the small sample size. Might this not also be the case for charities working in our communities without a true and comprehensive picture of our communities (including all of the good, the bad, and the ugly)? The result, we come up with supposedly meaningful patterns and conclude what the problems are based on non-systematic information and just create a revolving door of interventions that are not actually addressing the root causes. And the project fails because we haven’t done our homework. Yet another missed opportunity and wasted effort and funding.
I don’t know
I came across this podcast of the Freakonomics fame about Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt’s newly released book, Think Like a Freak. In one chapter of the new book, “The three hardest words in the English Language”, they talked about how humans are wired to never say “I don’t know” due to different social factors, when in fact, the most valuable lessons that we learn in life are from saying “I don’t know.” This is not a new concept, but a concept we need to learn again and again and put in practice when it comes to working with our communities.
How? By acknowledging that we don’t always know about our communities (or that we don’t know enough), and do better by our communities by truly trying to understand them – one way? doing smarter and more interesting research. That way we can come up with more innovative ways to work with our communities. You can’t solve problems without truly understand the situation.
Some might argue that with limited budget, we simply cannot invest in a role that doesn’t do delivery work, but playing the devil’s advocate, I ask: are we really being ethical by spending money on another delivery role without really knowing what the communities need?
Since the economic crash, I have seen an increase of fundraising roles charities are recruiting, and many of those roles have the responsibilities of designing programmes and writing grants. If you have the budget to invest in another fundraising role – the smarter decision that you can make is to invest part of that in some kind of social research capacity.
There are some smarter ways you can do this, and some things to think about if you want an affordable way to invest in research capacities: