Research matters

By Jenna Yanish, Development Outreach SpecialistHACER

Recently, my organization was rejected from a foundation, because that foundation 'doesn't fund research.'  At first, I shrugged it off- nothing weathers you against rejection like grant writing does. But it's been almost a month, and I'm not over it. 
So, to every foundation that doesn't support research, this blog is for you. Research matters.
I understand it's your prerogative  you get to choose where you give your money. Health programs? Recreational spaces? The arts? That's awesome, those things are so vital in our society. Before I called you, I did my, ahem, research, and you give to a lot of great organizations in all of those areas.  
How do we, as a society, define 'great,' when it comes to our nonprofit services? Maybe they saved tiny puppies from terrible homes, or provide early childhood education services for immigrant kids. Maybe they feed 10 billion people a year, mostly cute toddlers with big eyes that they put in their brochures. Those are great, noble, and heartwarming causes. Our graphs, tables, and pie charts may not pull at your heart strings  and we won't be able to tell you exactly how many people we serve.  But it's the research organizations that should be how you define 'great,' when it comes to nonprofits.
Our research  based in communities  makes sure these programs are connecting to the people who need them. It's research that identifies the gaps that highlight the necessity for a program at all! And it is research evaluation that makes sure the programs are actually doing what they say they are going to do. What good is an early childhood education service if its results aren't strong? What good is feeding 10 billion people if they weren't hungry in the first place  or if you are feeding them culturally inappropriate food?

At first glance, this may all seem obvious. But, less than 1 percent of federal (nondefense) discretionary spending goes toward programs that are backed by evidence. In 2014, researchers from the Center for the Study of Social Policy found that data and research take a backseat to ideology, history, and stories among decision-makers and social service providers. It’s essential for communities to tell their stories, but for policies that make change, and are efficient in the use of the limited resources, we need research and evaluation.

Community-based participation research allows the voices in the communities a place at decision making tables. It allows people to tell us what they need, when they need it, how they need it. Research ensures that in every step of the process, we are responding to the needs of the communities we serve, because the community knows what it needs. From ideation to evaluation, research allows us to tweak, tailor, and adjust until we are delivering the best, most culturally-appropriate services.

When I see workshops offered with titles like “Making your Metrics Dance,” I understand the impulse to turn numbers into a ‘compelling narrative,’ but it’s hard for me to not roll my eyes. Data can be boring, statistics don’t always catch the reader’s attention like a good, personal story.  Maybe it doesn't pull at your heartstrings- but does all nonprofit work need to be warm-fuzzies? Or does it just need to be important? Because research matters, and if you are serious about your philanthropy, you should probably start funding it. Dancing or not.