Research Meets Practice: A Call to Action at Our Lunch & Learn
by Sal Alaimo
The phrase “research meets practice” has been around for some time, and we see some prominent examples of it in action in the medical and engineering fields, as well as others. When it comes to philanthropy and nonprofit organizations, and those who study them, the phrase implies the intention to bring these two groups together to understand and enhance the growth and professionalization of the nonprofit sector.
Yet academics and practitioners have not — and still often do not — think about the purpose of academic research in the same way. Research for its own sake, for the sake of contributing to an existing body of knowledge on any given subject will always have important value. But some academics believe that the purpose of conducting research is to publish it and work towards securing tenure, while others measure their success by how frequently and easily everyday practitioners can apply that research to pursuing their organizations’ missions. Some go so far as to argue that sharing their research results with practitioners is an ethical responsibility, given that those practitioners are often the voluntary source of academic data.
Practitioners are also being nudged to the middle by the increasing call for accountability and effectiveness by government agencies, institutional funders, and the general public. Therefore, they must become better consumers of research and eliminate their view that academic research is not for them. For every area of service delivery in our society, there is a growing and evolving body of knowledge that nonprofit organizations could be monitoring, reading, analyzing, and utilizing to improve their work. Social entrepreneurship, for instance, is not just for start-ups. Its principles and practices can and arguably should be embedded in nonprofit culture so that service organizations, too, are always seeking new and innovative ways to improve their service and be more effective in their work.
The word praxis represents this coming together of research and practice. It is defined as the “exercise or practice of an art, science, or skill” and the “practical application of a theory” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Many reasons are cited in the literature for why bringing research and practice together is a good idea. One is to create a platform for the intercultural exchange of both practices and knowledge (Koegeler-Abdi & Parncutt, 2013). Another is the “enhanced appreciation by researchers for the realities and constraints of service provider partners, and for service provider partners, a greater understanding of the research process” (Mayan, Richter, Dastjerdi, & Drummond, 2016, pp. 263-264).
We see evidence of this movement to connect research and practice in various examples. One is in publications like Nonprofit Quarterly and The Foundation Review, both of which are known for their blended readership of academics and practitioners. Nonprofit Quarterly’s “mission to provide credible, research-based articles for nonprofits about management and governance” has “evolved to cover issues related to the operating environment for nonprofits — specifically, public policy and philanthropy” (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2018). The Foundation Review, housed at Johnson Center, “is the first peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy, written by and for foundation staff and boards, and those who work with them implementing programs.” Its mission is to “share evaluation results, tools, and knowledge about the philanthropic sector in order to improve the practice of grantmaking, yielding greater impact and innovation” (Johnson Center for Philanthropy, 2018).
Another example of this meeting in the middle is the formation of groups like the Pracademics Section within the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA). “Pracademics” are often described has having one foot in academic research and the other in practice. The mission of this section is to “build more effective academic-practitioner relationships in order to foster and disseminate high quality research and strengthen nonprofit management education, community service, voluntary action, and philanthropic studies” (ARNOVA, 2018). Beyond the annual ARNOVA Conference, there are many examples across the country where academics, practitioners and pracademics come together for the purpose of blending research and practice.
Lastly, we see efforts to bring research and practice together in higher education as well as professional development. There are now over 200 programs across the United States in nonprofit studies, like our Master’s in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at GVSU, where existing and aspiring practitioners are earning degrees in the field. The Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC), of which the School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration (SPNHA) is a member, provides curricular guidelines for undergraduate and graduate programs in the field and is now embarking on developing accreditation for these programs. Academic institutions are the facilitators and conveners of this movement by connecting existing students with alumni in the field, bringing in practitioners as guest speakers in classes, showcasing faculty and student research to practitioners, and a host of other opportunities.
Professional development opportunities have substantially grown over the last two decades thanks to statewide nonprofit associations — like our own Michigan Nonprofit Association — which provide training, resources and discounts, and scholarships to their members attending colleges and universities. Nonprofit Management Support Organizations (MSOs), such as the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (which is also a PSO — Philanthropy Support Organization), offer regular professional development opportunities, including workshops for nonprofits and grantmakers, a Board certification program, and a free monthly Lunch and Learn series.
“Research Meets Practice” is the next Lunch and Learn session at the Johnson Center, held on Wednesday, December 12, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Each year in December, recent alumni of the School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration at GVSU present their research during a brown bag session that is open to the public. While, in full disclosure, their research is not generalizable, it is driven by insights they have gained from their work. The discussion around that sharing is intended to cover how research can influence practice and how nonprofit organizations can be better consumers of research. The alumni presenters have been chosen by the faculty editorial board as the top five projects out of all those submitted in the current academic year from the culminating experience course taken by students in all three graduate programs within the school. These include the Master’s of Public Administration, Master’s of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, and the Master’s of Health Administration. These papers are published in hard copy and electronically in the school’s in-house journal, the SPNHA Review.
“Michigan Juvenile Waiver Law: Time for Repeal”
Debra Barnum earned the Top Paper for her research study, “Michigan Juvenile Waiver Law: Time for Repeal,” a considerable feat given that she left her job at Area Community Services and Training Council (ACSET) to provide full-time care for her disabled mother. While at ACSET, she served as Community Services Assistant. Debra’s career focus and passion has been centered on working with juveniles and adults in various capacities to facilitate growth, education, accountability, independence, responsibility, and empowerment. These interests are reflected in her study, which analyzed relevant research to examine the history, procedures, and outcomes of the Michigan Juvenile Waiver Law and came to the conclusions that MCL 712A.2d is not an effective deterrent, and that the law is not compatible with the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. Debra earned her Master of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Public Management in 2017.
“Engaging Low-Income Individuals and Communities to Advocate for Antipoverty Public Policies”
Tammy Britton earned her Master of Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management and Leadership in 2017 after earning a Bachelor of Science in Corporate Communications at Austin Peay State University. Tammy currently works as a Project Manager for Talent 2025 in Grand Rapids, Mich. and also serves as Secretary and Trustee on the board for the Kenowa Hills Education Foundation. Her study, “Engaging Low-Income Individuals and Communities to Advocate for Antipoverty Public Policies” reflects her passion for reducing poverty and inclusive economic development. It examined the literature exploring the relationship between nonprofit organizations, government, and public policy; the role of nonprofits as representatives and advocates; participatory processes for antipoverty public policy; and community engagement activities shown to lead to advocacy in the policy-making process. Her findings convey the effectiveness of low-income community engagement activities in Grand Rapids leading to advocacy for antipoverty public policy.
“Wayfinding and Dementia: How Design Can Improve Navigation Among Older Adults in Assisted-Living Facilities”
Kaitlyn Kleibusch’s study, “Wayfinding and Dementia: How Design Can Improve Navigation Among Older Adults in Assisted-Living Facilities” is timely given the unfortunate growth in dementia patients due to the expansion of our nation’s elderly population. Her study examined how architectural and interior design impacts individuals with dementia, explores how individuals with dementia interpret their surroundings, and offers insight into best design and décor practices for improved wayfinding in assisted-living facilities. Kaitlyn currently serves as a Product Manager at Priority Health, and she earned her Master of Health Administration with a concentration in Long-term Care from Grand Valley State University in 2017. She aspires to improve member health and well-being through innovative employer solutions, and hopes to increase health literacy throughout the state.
“Local Government and Affordable Housing Tools”
Elizabeth Knape earned her Master of Public Administration with an emphasis in Urban Planning at GVSU in 2017. Her passion for the provision of affordable housing units that are safe, beautiful, and in the heart of the community is reflected in her current role as Assistant Planner in Plainfield Charter Township’s Community Development Department. It’s also reflected in her study, “Local Government and Affordable Housing Tools” wherein she examined the challenges for local governments regarding their ability and willingness to use innovative planning and zoning techniques and strategic partnerships to achieve affordable housing goals tailored to the needs of the locality. As a result of her study, Elizabeth has recommendations for local government officials seeking to meet the needs of lower-income constituents.
A Call to Action
I encourage academics to think about how your research can impact the practitioner world. I also encourage practitioners to reach out to academics and be better consumers of research. Please join us in the journey to bring research and practice together to explore new, innovative and effective ways to improve how we all tackle the tough social problems of our day.
Click here for more information and to register for this informative session.
Salvatore Alaimo, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the School of Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration at Grand Valley State University. Dr. Alaimo teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in nonprofit administration, including a graduate course he developed in program evaluation. His research interests are in the areas of evaluation, volunteer management and contract management. Dr. Alaimo has published several book chapters and a journal article in New Directions for Evaluation that was republished in 2010 in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Nonprofit and Public Leadership. He produced a documentary entitled What is Philanthropy? that enhances our understanding of the concept of philanthropy and its role in American society.