Building a collaboration network between research academics and voluntary and community sector organisations to enhance researchAbigail Woodward7 September 2022
Written by Dr Abi Woodward (Research Fellow), Dr Megan Armstrong (Senior Research Fellow), Swettha Mahesarajah and Rasha Meah. Swettha joined PCPH as a temporary Research Assistant to support a UCL Research Culture Awards project. Rasha was a student researcher on placement through the In2Research programme.
Voluntary and community sector organisations (VCSOs) are often a lifeline for local communities. Working alongside organisations that are trusted by underserved groups is vital for addressing inequalities, as well as for improving representation in research. In June 2022, eight representatives from six London-based VCSOs participated in a knowledge exchange workshop. Funded by the UCL Research Culture Awards, Principal Investigators Abi Woodward and Megan Armstrong aimed to encourage greater collaboration between academia and VCSOs, to achieve more joint delivery of research with underserved groups. This project is linked to a larger study exploring the self-management of multiple long-term conditions in people experiencing socioeconomic deprivation.
The VCSOs in attendance were from the British Pakistani Foundation (n=2), Colindale Communities Trust (n=1), Fair Money Advice (n=1), Skills Enterprise (n=2), St Joseph’s Hospice (n=1), and Youth Realities (n=1). All VCSOs identified as having a shared interest in addressing issues of inequalities and socioeconomic deprivation. We explored how research collaboration with VCSOs can be improved, as well as how academic researchers can design and disseminate research in line with community priorities. Through group discussion, online polls, and interactive exercises, we identified some of the key barriers, facilitators, and benefits to VCSO engagement in academic research.
What should be prioritised when conducting research with underserved groups?
VCSO representatives said they were approached to help with the identification and recruitment of participants and to advise on the types of questions to ask. Attendees stressed the importance of academics providing detailed information about individual research studies as they want to understand how research aligns with community priorities. One attendee highlighted how clear communication led to a positive experience during a recent research project in partnership with UCL and the NHS:
…it was a positive experience for us because the information was told to us beforehand and… clear information was given to volunteers and staff who were participating in the research…so the learning from that is clear information from the beginning. (Project Manager, Skills Enterprise)
Attendees explained the importance of truly understanding the study objectives and their potential to influence policy change. Some agreed however, that a lack of investment in time to communicate key messages during initial engagement had left VCSOs uncertain of their role in research. Some questioned whether researchers recognised the true value that VCSOs add. One attendee explained more about the role they can play alongside academics:
…if you don’t have that level of lived experience and the questions are sensitive, it can come across as paternalistic or can be viewed as judgmental so having someone who’s been in somebody’s shoes asking those very sensitive questions makes a huge difference…it is very difficult to ask those questions without having that level of empathy. (Managing Director, Fair Money Finance)
Another attendee said, ‘the wording used by university researchers is not what people understand’ (CEO, Colindale Community Trust) and asked for academics to work with VCSOs to get this right.
Another key theme that came out of the workshop was the shared concern of not being kept informed about the outcome of the different research projects VCSOs get involved in (within academia and beyond):
After initial requests to help with research we find that there is no engagement post the information collection period, there is a disconnect. (Chief Operating Officer, British Pakistani Foundation)
The frustration is that the borough does amazing research, data and statistics and they know what the services are, but two years on we don’t know how to use that to influence anything. (CEO, Colindale Community Trust)
Attendees also spoke about the value of utilising participatory methods in research studies. Such methods can help researchers achieve more meaningful interaction with stakeholders and underserved communities. The key message here was to ‘adapt your research in a way that will get you the results that you need’ (Senior Youth Worker at Youth Realities). In addition, VCSOs highlighted that there may be limitations to staff and resources and asked that researchers consider whether additional funding can be offered to enable them to collaborate in research studies.
VCSO representatives typically wanted the opportunity to be more actively involved in research studies, and earlier on. Meaningful community collaboration requires a balanced partnership between academics and VCSOs. Focusing on this could help provide mutual benefits and a greater connection in research to the needs of underserved groups.
As such, there is huge potential for academia to engage more with VCSOs to add value to research studies. Establishing a partnership between academia and VCSOs provides the opportunity to discuss shared priorities, understand capacity and the resources needed, and identify roles that work for both parties.
The project team would like to thank everyone who participated in this project for their valuable insights and contribution.