Keeping everyone happy? (Community House Rules: Part 2)

Melissa Phillips 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. 


If you’ve followed the Community House Rules advice (as well as that presented in the fantastic comments), found your research partner/s, submitted a successful proposal, and agreed on the minutiae of your project agreement, you’re probably cashed-up and raring to go!

The following considerations are not intended as kill-joys for those of you with your hiking boots on ready to get into your fieldwork. Instead, they map out obstacles that can de-rail projects, and I suggest ways to avoid getting your boots dirtier than you may have intended.

These considerations do add more time to the planning and preparation stage, but if you’ve worked hard to get this far, a few more months won’t hurt. Trust me!

Danger (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How is the project structured?

  • There are numerous ways to structure a project governance body that provides feedback and comment as the project progresses. It could be, for instance, an advisory group (composed of researchers and partners), or a wider Steering Group (with community representatives). Remember that consultation raises expectations and can lead to unexpected problems but, if it’s done well, groups can involve other influential players in the research and encourage a sense of project ownership.
  • When I was a little girl (ok, an applicant for a doctoral scholarship), I dreamed that my project would be consultative, representative and useful. So, I thought a Participatory Action Research approach would be the best fit because it encouraged real-time feedback. When I grew up, I realised this decision was not up to me, but it may be something you can consider.
  • On a more mundane note, you need to establish the key contacts for your project. The people who sign project agreements are usually too busy to get involved on an everyday basis. Make sure you know who you should be talking to in your partner organisation/s, and always get the contact number for the CEO’s Executive Assistant!

Ethics…say no more.

  • Ethical considerations are necessary to safeguard participants. We all know that. While some may question the ability of university ethics committees to generate anything other than paperwork and questions that lead you to tear your hair out, ethics approval is an unavoidable hurdle. In my experience, over-emphasising the vulnerability of participants can harm your chances of ethics application approval, so choose your words wisely.
  • When you’re asking research participants to devote time and effort to answer your questions, I believe they should be adequately compensated. This aspect needs to be included in your ethics application. I’ve heard patronising arguments about financial incentives skewing participant involvement but, in all my experience, a modest payment is almost always seen as a gesture of thanks that is warmly received (but not expected) by the participants. You might consider a supermarket voucher with the varying amounts, depending on the time participants have committed to your project (suggested range: $20-$50).

It’s called publicity, dahling!

  • Publicising your research project has multiple spin-offs: you find interviewees or research participants, people find you, you showcase the project and it looks flash. You should consider adding a page on a university site, even if you want to have a stand-alone website.
  • One thing I’ve learned is that the word ‘research’ isn’t as sexy to potential interviewees as it may be for you! So, for your participant recruitment advertisements, consider adding phrases like ‘a chance to give your views’ or ‘tell us what you think’.
  • Key contacts in peak representative bodies and mentions in their newsletters can take your project PR a long way. For example, adding a link to the project website on their ‘Contacts’ page can be invaluable.
  • Another benefit of publicity, over and above generating participant interest, is that it can help avoid the “but I never knew about this piece of research” refrain you can get – ever so helpfully –  at the end of your project.
  • Remember, publicity and reaching out to participants (however tentatively) can be a double-edged sword. Be prepared for the inevitable criticism over perceived limitations in your research. These could include queries as to why a particular site/group/time period isn’t considered. Rehearse key messages and be able to state the purpose of the project succinctly. This comes in handy for my next suggestion.

But when do I actually get to talk to people?

  • In my first project, it shocked me that it took a good six months before we started talking to real live human beings for our research. Now, I realise how ‘quick’ this actually was! Much of what you do next depends on the methodology set out in your proposal. I won’t consider focus groups with experts or stakeholders here because I find that they will generally make time to speak to you because your research is relevant to them. I’d be interested in hearing from you if you’ve found otherwise?
  • Information sessions are a great way to activate community engagement. In essence, information sessions are short (30 mins to 1 hour), targeted events that give you a chance to explain your research directly to people. It lets them find out who you are and will always lead to good contacts, if not actual participants. These sessions give you a rare opportunity to communicate your research straight to interested parties without it being ‘translated’ by gatekeepers.

○    It’s good to try a mix of informal presentations, PowerPoint, and Q&A time (with handouts for people to take away).
○    Choose locations/times that are convenient. For example, in my current research project, one information session was timed after factory-shifts ended.
○    Always feed attendees, even if it’s an assorted pack of biscuits.
○    Remember that a bit of extra work now can help a lot, so enjoy the time out of the office because you’ll miss it when you are stuck indoors analysing data!
○    Coinciding information sessions with focus groups can save time if you’re busy.

  • Keep a database of any contacts you make during information sessions. University IT rules often exclude sending emails to people who haven’t consented to be on your mailing list. People you meet at information sessions can be good contacts for sharing reports, conference announcements, or project findings later on.

There’s this one gatekeeper I can’t get past…

  • Some researchers, including Letherby and Coomber [1], have observed that gatekeepers can make participants hard to reach. How many times has finding participants rested on the goodwill of a few influential people? Having been a gatekeeper in the past – protecting my clients from intrusive researchers who don’t pay them or report back (more on that later) – I can relate to the actions of a reliable source who is afraid to hand over their ‘little black book’ of potential participants.
  • Convincing a gatekeeper, or anyone for that matter, of the merits of involvement relies on your clarity about who you are, why you want to talk to people, what you want to talk to them about, and how you’re different from the last three researchers who called. This is why a website can be useful, and how holding community information sessions can prove that you’re willing to go the extra mile.
  • I’m surprised that few professional associations have ethical standards that can be invoked to assure people of your research credentials (in addition to ethics approval documentation). Research partners are invaluable here to help you understand the hesitation people may have about participating in your research and how to address their reluctance.
  • A fail-proof approach is meeting key contacts face-to-face. Few people, including me, can say no to direct requests. This kind of communication can help reassure the gate-keepers of your research value and standards, and they can, in turn, reassure and introduce research participants for you.
  • Remember that an over-reliance on a few key contacts can also skew research participants. I will confess that it sometimes became convenient as a community worker to recommend the same (usually male) head of a community group to stop a pesky researcher from bugging me again and again about research participants. Give key contacts time to think about the best choice of potential participants, and make their job easier by having all the publicity material ready for them.

Please stay in touch

  • I love research projects that have e-lists or newsletters offering you the chance to sign up for updates. People are genuinely keen to know what is going on in your research especially, if they’ve participated. Sending a copy of your thesis or final report is a valued gesture, and in keeping with the feedback and reciprocity that’s expected in good community research.
  • Conversely, when I’ve given an interview or spent time answering questions, I get annoyed when I hear nothing back. Your actions lay the ground for future researchers. Recently, I’ve had to answer questions such as “but the last researcher from blah came, asked questions, and that was the last we heard of them – how are you any different?”. Please save your colleagues (and your profession) from this humiliation!

When the talk is done

  • The time has come to write a report or submit articles for publication! One comment from my last post asked about crediting partners. A lot of the practical details should be worked through during early Advisory group meetings, or the development of publicity material (i.e. logos, naming personnel, formal name of organisation). I’ve always added a link to my research webpage in published articles. Reports may need more explicit acknowledgement for funding support. You could consider adding a foreword from your research partner to public reports.
  • Send reports and even journal article references via your e-list or to peak bodies who have newsletters; list these on your project website, too. People will appreciate seeing the output of your project and it can attract wider publicity.
  • Public forums are also a great way to engage a wider audience in your research, and they give research partners a chance to showcase their involvement.
  • If you are holding conferences, make sure that you budget for registration waivers for research participants and those stakeholders who have gone the extra mile to help you. Depending on whether you are targeting academics or practitioners (or both), consider the merits of research participant/partner involvement as speakers, panelists and session chairs. This can be a tangible and respectful way to ‘credit’ their support.

Many researchers approach partnerships with communities and community organisations as long-term relationships that will develop over several research projects.

Despite the fact that research projects are not judged by the ARC or our peers on how well we engage with communities, taking the time to consider and implement some or all of the factors listed here will make your research a more inclusive, representative, and personally rewarding experience. Achieving these aims is why you became a researcher in the first place, isn’t it?


[1] Letherby, G., & Coomber, R. (2010). “Are the Hard-to-Reach really Hard-to-Reach and Are Sensitive Topics Sensitive?” Paper presented at Social Causes, Private Lives: The Annual Conference of the Australian Sociological Association.

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