Community House Rules

Our first guest post for 2012 is by Melissa Phillips who has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 


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If you are working on an industry Linkage project, or have ever had to develop a research proposal, you’ve no doubt had to write a line or two about ‘community’. ‘Working with the community’, ‘engaging the community’, ‘giving back to the community’… you know the drill.

Researchers can and do have positive and rewarding interactions with communities and vice versa. Having worked on both sides of the divide, I really believe that partnerships between academics and communities are vital. Some of my most enjoyable interactions have been running, or participating in, a focus group. As a community worker I’ve loved listening to ideas that researchers can voice – ideas that I’ve not dared to think. Now as a postgraduate student I value the time and patience that community groups give to the questions that I ask.

Like any relationship, research-community partnerships require a bit of effort. I think that the trickiest part isn’t those few sentences that you draft for your research proposal – it’s putting them into practice.

In the past, I’ve managed a refugee settlement program and worked for a national refugee policy and advocacy organisation. What I’ve written below is based on my experience in the refugee and migrant services community sector. It focuses on the broader aspects of relationship building and will be followed up (if you promise to comment nicely on this post) with a more ‘how-to’ guide on working with communities, especially getting research participants. But first you’ve got to get your foot in the door!

When it’s good it’s good


Shared agendas
- Community groups need independent, well-researched data – the sort of data that your research project is undoubtedly going to provide. And you wouldn’t be able to undertake some kinds of research without community input, advice and support (financial or otherwise). Surely that’s a simple enough justification for mutually rewarding research agendas?

Research is advocacy – A good number of community groups are reliant on government-funding that may come with restrictions on advocacy. It is likely that small to mid-sized community groups won’t have the in-house capacity to do long-term research of the kind you’re offering to do. But do your homework before you approach them. Get to know what they’ve done in the past [Stop Press: even if it’s not ranked or cited, it still counts as research in the community sector and it will be publicly available on their websites.]

Getting it off your chest – People working in the community sector know the larger issues they or their clients face, but don’t have the time to invest in advocacy or broader research. They don’t have libraries with subscriptions to journals and even if they did, and tried to move forward on an issue, they’d likely be told that they were biased. So when you come along and offer to work with them, it can be like a dream come true.

Status – Governments love academics (or a policy person may have a soft spot for the university they studied at…). I’ve seen them positively drool as a Professor gives a 10 minute lecture that would bore 1st year students. So remember, as a researcher you bring status and clout that many organisations would scramble to be associated with. But don’t get too carried away with yourselves…

When it’s bad it is horrible

Are you speaking English? – There are different languages spoken in academia and the community sectors. Jargons and acronyms litter the paths of rejected research proposals, so you will have to work hard to find a common language that does not make your potential community partner feel stupid. They need to be reassured that you understand their issues and concerns without patronising them.

Money – If you’ve read this far you’ll probably appreciate the financial status of community organisations. Many organisations operate on a thin annual budget with low administrative overheads and so you will need to consider the full range of in-kind costs they can offer you. [And yes, before you ask, even $50,000 is a LOT of money. It would pay for a first year qualified welfare or community development worker under the SACS Award.] So think outside the box of how you can cooperate in a research partnership through the offer of a desk, meeting space, access to research participants and senior policy staff time. Throw in a few chestnuts like giving a briefing to a team meeting or network. Some conferences even have scholarships for professionals working outside academe that could provide a chance to co-present on your research.

Who is the busiest? – Community groups are busy too. Having worked in both environments I am going to potentially jeopardise my chances at an academic career and say that some researchers have no idea how busy and demanding work is when you have clients with real-life problems on your door on a daily basis. This means that even if a community representative can carve out the time to meet, they might not be in the right head-space to think about three-year longitudinal projects. Please forgive them and show understanding [Note: this does not mean in any way that you try to empathise. Sharing tales about the burden of your student load is not helpful. Nor is talking about how you need to go away from December to February to write.]

Death by outputs – This point might have gone in the ‘good’ section because everyone these days faces the same demands for outputs and key performance indicators (KPIs). The main distinction between academia and the community sector, with regard to outputs, are the expectations around time-frames. Community groups that I’ve worked with are mind-boggled about how long it takes to produce a research report or get an article published. Take heed of the ‘Are you speaking English?’ comments above and try to explain a little about your methodologies, processes and why your fantastically rigorous research is going to be so brilliant. A little understanding of the benefits that they might gain from some of the research outputs can go a long way. Hint: think about opportunities to showcase the research through public forums, high-profile final report launches and publications that can be freely downloaded from a community organisation’s website. Remember that they will be looking for research that is not only rigorous and relevant but also timely. Consider other timelines than those of government funding bodies, such as elections, Ministerial consultation periods, community sector funding cycles. You won’t be able to fit in with everything but you can appreciate the deadlines that your community partner is facing.

In 2010, I was involved in organising a public discussion on ‘Multiculturalism and Social Inclusion’, for a Migration, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism Thematic Group, as part of the Australian Sociological Association. The event brought together researchers, government representatives and community sector representatives. What struck me was the lack opportunities for people working at different levels in the same sector to meet and mingle. Everyone that I spoke to was eager to network – researchers wanted to meet community sector representatives and vice versa. This made me think that perhaps what we really need to build more community sector partnerships, as a kind of ‘speed dating’ for researchers. What do you think?

Edited to add:

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17 Responses to Community House Rules

  1. badblood says:

    I’m a senior project worker responsible for in-house research at a medium-size NGO in the same field as Melissa. We get quite a few requests from academics looking for partners on ARC Linkage grants. So many, in fact, that some of my colleagues have grown quite cynical about them, suspecting all they want is the in-kind contribution and the appearance of partnership. It is certainly disheartening when your ‘partner’ on a project interviews you as a ‘participant’ and then your ideas come out under their name and none of your earlier written work is cited. But it is incredibly exciting when research undertaken on this basis helps get ‘practice into research’ and generate findings directly relevant to our work. This is a great post and full of ideas for researchers interested in partnerships with community organisations.

    • bollywoodmel says:

      Thanks for the feedback, a good point about citing earlier works from partners in your final report and associated research outputs like articles, conference papers etc. They are an invaluable resource that need to be duly credited.

  2. Tseen Khoo says:

    I have a feeling that making community connections via Linkage grants may be even more difficult now that ARC has gone to 1 funding round a year. Even with 2 funding rounds, waiting many months for outcomes doesn’t seem an attractive option.

    In your experience, does the long time-line put many organisations off partnering with academics in this way?

    • badblood says:

      Not sure who this question is for but I’ll take a crack at it! I plan my funding submissions up to three years in advance, so the extended timeline isn’t off-putting to me personally — in fact it’s worth taking the time to establish relationships and explore the extent of overlap between your respective goals and visions for the project before a deadline hoves into view. But there’s a practical issue for the researcher to consider, which is that most project workers in community orgs spend 3-5 years in a role before moving on, so if winning funding takes too long you might end up working with entirely new staff by the time the money comes through. So make sure you meet the team, meet the management, enquire about career plans and talk upfront about succession planning in case of turnover.

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        Thanks for that, Dan. Good to hear from you, partic given your experience. The turn-over + mobility of staff in the community org. sector is a big factor to consider + plan for, I think, in pulling together a major grant app. The long-deferred outcomes of, say, ARCs, need whole-of-organisation commitment, not just one keen advocate.

        An associated question: With your 3-year plan, do you already have in mind the people/unis you’d want to work with and existing relationships, or do you then hunt appropriate research teams to meet your org’s goals?

      • bollywoodmel says:

        A really important point about the practicalities of timelines – community sector funding is generally short-term while research partnerships are initially 3years but with the investment required it inevitably turns into something longer term. Does this limt the scope of smaller organisations to get involved? What about research partner consortiums – are these one way for collaboration to work for smaller NGOs/community organisations without the capacity to be involved on their own?

  3. Hi,

    Great article but definitely post the second one! Would love more practical how to and ethically I think you should give credit of course (as mentioned in the first comment).

    Some how to on how to credit the organisation also would be good.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon
    Blog: http://www.dalereardon.com.au

    • bollywoodmel says:

      Thanks for the feedback, I’ll definitely start working on the next post and take into consideration the issue of credit. If you’ve got any ideas or suggestions please feel free to share them via this post or the next one … crediting people for work is potentially one of the more fraught areas in this whole domain of research

  4. Indi says:

    Really great to see these kinds of blogs out, and one that picks up on a discussion thread on Dr Khoo’s blog post on funding a few days before. Even more encouraging to see an article written by a sociologist working in migration and social inclusion. Seeing someone like Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, a professor of sociology, so involved with public broadcasting shows like SBS’s Once Upon A Time in Cabramatta over the past two Sundays, and the recent work of AASRN (Asian Australian Studies Research Network) with the community and industry focused AAFFN (Asian Australian Film Forum and Network), whose first event was co-sponsored by AASRN and SBS, it’s clear there’s so much that can happen when academia and community collaborate on ideas. Yet reading this article, it’s clear that there can be really different outcome timelines, measurements and communication styles as well. More opportunities for community sector partnerships (and with guides like this kind of blog) sounds like a great recipe for 2012.

  5. bollywoodmel says:

    I’ve been avidly watching One Upon a Time in Cabramatta and enjoy seeing a sociologist contributing to public broadcasting, it really highlights the positive way academics can engage with a wider audience as this post has tried to highlight. And for those of us who don’t make it onto prime-time TV, research projects and other forms of collaboration make for exciting ventures too. Thanks for the call-out for more how-to guides … I’ll get started on the next post!

  6. DLA says:

    Fantastic post, so totally spot on! all of it really resonates with me as a PhD grad who works in the community sector. I left the sector to go do the PhD and am now back there part-time. I get a lot of pleasure out of using my newly-honed research skills and knowledge of university systems, and the experience of working in the sector informs the writing & research that I’m continuing to do independently of my paid work. It’s been wonderful to work in a space where it feels as though academic work and community service work can together produce meaningful responses to the epic social problems we face as a society and as a world.

    It’s also notable that, whilst I’m still reliant on casual or short-term contracts to work in the community sector (see the recent Australian Services Union campaign for Equal Pay), I’ve been treated so much better as an employee than I ever was as a casual tutor, lecturer, research assistant or administrator in 5 different Australian universities since I graduated (and had much better quality union representation). I am contracted and paid on time, provided with office space, and constantly told how valued I am to the organisation/s I work for.

    PS. The point about ‘status’ made me laugh out loud. There have definitely been times where community sector colleagues have seemed to treat me as though I’m generically intelligent and can add automatic value to whatever they do as a result of the magic Dr title, *or* as though I am massive wanker who couldn’t possibly have anything to offer the ‘real’ world. The misinformation and resentment in both stereotypes is very telling – and links back to some of the points under ‘When it’s bad’, not to mention the general importance of both sectors getting to know each other a bit better to get a good picture of what they might offer each other.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Just wanted to say that this comment is fab. Really interesting to hear your views from each side of the equation, and I think you make an extremely good point re the valuing of (contract/casual) workers in each sector, too. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: research projects with community groups « migratory mel

  8. DLA says:

    My pleasure!

    Today I feel compelled to add: it’s worth remembering that this kind of conversation can be hijacked by those who think ‘traditional’ academic work (say research, teaching and writing that may be confined largely to a university setting) is not a legitimate or valuable thing. Neoliberal governments have way too much of an interest in shifting funding and labour onto other agencies (from corporations to community organisations). I suspect that the better we get at matching scholarly training, expertise and passion with the work of community groups who are also reliant on public funding and ideas of public good, the better we’ll be at making this point to government when we need to.

    • bollywoodmel says:

      Absolutely agree that the combined power of academic researchers and community groups is much greater than each working alone which is why I am so keen to see them work! There is so much goodwill on both sides, hopefully this post and all the fabulous comments help us to find ways to harness the goodwill and focus it around relevant issues of mutual interest.

  9. Anuja says:

    It is an interesting post, and a challenging one for me. I have engaged with the community (and banking) sector for six to seven years now. I attended a community conference just before I started my PhD, and have maintained and built on those connections over the years, even more than my academic ones.

    I think the success in the partnership is based on the commitment you show, and the attitude you have when approaching the organisations. I spent time listening to people to find out what their research needs were and listened to any issues they were having. I didn’t ask for money. I wasn’t interested in that to start with.

    I think it is important to first build a trusting relationship, and then having a look to see if research can be of mutual benefit to all parties involved.

    • bollywoodmel says:

      A really good point about building trust and listening before starting to talk about research partnerships, like all good work relationships it takes time to get to know the personalities involved and see the opportunities rather than just focus on money.

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