Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Building Non-Profit Capacity to Design and Implement Evidence-Based Policy: Lessons from a University-Community Partnership

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 8:50 AM
Johnson II (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Valerie Cooley1, Andrew Pennock1, Bernie Beaudreau2 and Marisa Petreccia2, (1)Brown University, (2)Serve Rhode Island
Non-profit organizations often serve as the front-line implementers of social policy initiatives supported by both federal and private grants.  Increasingly, funders expect such organizations to design and implement programs according to evidence-based principles and sometimes require the development of evaluation procedures to both monitor processes and further contribute to the research literature.  The challenge is that many non-profits, though supportive of the principle of evidence-based programming, lack the research and evaluation capacity to fulfill the expectations.  Universities possess necessary resources to partner with and empower non-profit organizations, but effective university-community partnerships can be challenging.  A case study of a collaborative effort between Serve Rhode Island and Brown University to build non-profit capacity in the state provides insights regarding the obstacles and strategies for effective partnerships.

Serve Rhode Island functions as the Rhode Island state commission for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).  Funds from the federal agency are available to non-profit organizations, through the state commissions, to address several pressing social problems including poverty, educational disparities, disaster relief, and public health concerns.  The AmeriCorps program specifically utilizes volunteers, who receive a modest living allowance, to address these problems, thereby creating jobs and providing pathways to opportunity for young people entering the workforce.  Three years ago, CNCS explicitly adopted an evidence-based policy perspective and required applicants to demonstrate the alignment of programs with relevant research.  Serve Rhode Island partnered with faculty at Brown University in order to provide training and consultation to AmeriCorps applicant organizations to strengthen the research-based design, evidence base, and evaluation plan of their proposed programs.  Thirty staff members representing seven different non-profit organizations participated in at least one training or one consultation session. 

Data from participant observation and surveys of non-profit organization staff members reveal several findings that highlight key challenges to effective collaboration and provide guidance for the development of partnerships. These collaborative relationships must address several factors that contribute to the divide between academic researchers and front-line practitioners including language barriers, access to research, different perspectives on the purpose and value of evaluation research, and contrasting organizational incentives.  Suggestions for addressing some of these barriers and the role of academic faculty are discussed.