We recently reached out to the Stanford Social Innovation Review community—readers of the magazine and online content, as well as participants of the webinars, workshops, and conferences—to better understand the role that research plays in people’s efforts to solve environmental, social, and economic justice issues, and to strive for social change. More than 1,800 people from organizations across a broad spectrum of issue domains and sectors responded to our survey (see “About the Respondents” at the end of this article for more detail). In this article, we summarize what we heard from survey respondents, but also what we did not hear. Our objective is to trigger and inform a constructive discussion on how people in the social sector use research and also on the missed opportunities to use research.

Types of research people turn to and how often they read it

In our survey, 96 percent of respondents read practice-oriented publications such as SSIR at least “sometimes,” and most do so “often.” Many also read reports or research published by consulting companies (85 percent), academic journals (75 percent), trade associations (71 percent), and international organizations (70 percent).1 The preference for research featured in practice-oriented publications is probably best explained by the fact that 48 percent of respondents perceive them as “most relevant” to their own work. Academic journals and reports published by consulting companies were perceived by only 16 percent as most relevant, and less than 11 percent perceived research published by international organizations or associations as most relevant. One respondent remarked: “Academic journals are difficult to use as a teaching/discussion tool for front line staff. Case studies, blogs, and short thought pieces with practical examples give me a platform to engage my full staff so they are willing to apply new concepts and try research-based principles.” Where practice-oriented publications seem to provide real value is in their ability to translate research into a form and language that is suitable for busy people at different levels of an organization.

How people find suitable research

Sourcing of research is done predominantly at the individual level, not at the organizational level. The main sources respondents use to find interesting research are the Internet (80 percent), and personal or professional networks (79 percent). Only a few respondents rely on sources within their organizations, such as colleagues at work, internal communication, or trainings. This suggests that many organizations do not have explicit or systematic strategies and processes to use research as part of their decision-making or communications. Respondents frequently mentioned Twitter, blogs, and electronic newsletters as channels for accessing research. This shows the importance of push mechanisms for diffusing knowledge. The increase in pushed content means that information and knowledge compete for people’s limited attention capacity. This can make it challenging for people to separate valid research resulting from established research methods from merely interesting research. As we note later, the effort required to identify legitimate knowledge is one of the main hurdles to translating research into concrete action.

How people use research

The survey suggests that people use research more for triggering different or novel questions than for providing answers. Respondents use research most often to help spark new ideas, aid reflection, and get different perspectives (60 percent). This might explain the preference for practice-oriented journals, as they usually have a more inspirational and “real-world” character than academic journals. One respondent said:

Members of the academy are rewarded for advancing theoretical knowledge rather than truly connecting theory to practice. […] The hairsplitting between two arcane versions of the same theory may be useful to [scholars], but is not particularly useful to me. What is useful is when the theory explores new areas and, most importantly, makes the connection between the theory and the practice easily identifiable.

Interestingly, respondents indicated that they most often use research to communicate and share knowledge with others. Another respondent noted, “Knowledge sharing will always help in my future course of action. Knowledge sharing will make you further strong to implement ideas. Knowledge sharing, communications and information help build up a good character. And good character is always indispensable.”

Another often-cited use of research is to keep in touch with the external environment, trends, and what others are doing. Interestingly, research seems to play a minor role when communicating with donors for funding. Many donors do fund research by academic institutions and consulting companies, but it remains unclear whether and how this research informs funding decisions and to what extent funders expect organizations to use this research. Some respondents were outright skeptical about the use of academic research for making funding decisions. One wrote, “We don’t fund based on academic research anymore. ... Not an effective source for real social change.”

Internal research: the principle resource for providing useful knowledge

A significant majority of respondents conduct in-house research (82 percent), and have commissioned research from consultancies (52 percent) and academics (48 percent). In addition, 77 percent say that the benefit-to-cost ratio of investing in such research favorably compares to using published research. Organizations conduct research on a large number of topics, reflecting the broad variety of organizational and geographic backgrounds of respondents. They mostly research concrete issues that are not adequately covered—if at all—in published literature. The research objective is often to improve an organization’s framing of constituencies’ needs. A second frequent research objective is to inform concrete designs and opportunities for interventions. But the largest amount of research seems to address questions of measuring, understanding, evaluating, and improving program or organization performance and effectiveness.

Hurdles that limit the usefulness of published research

Two general hurdles to using research articles stood out in the survey: A majority of respondents believe that accessing articles is too expensive and that the findings do not reflect their particular situation or context. Many said that research is often too narrow in scope, too specific to one program or one context, and not current. Much of the research is US- and EU-centric, and many respondents perceive it as produced to promote the careers and agendas of researchers rather than to aid practitioners. Many respondents pointed out that the use of technical jargon, and the conceptual and theoretical nature of articles are also notable hurdles. The difficulty of translating research findings into concrete action was cited by 70 percent of respondents as an major barrier. Most respondents identified a lack of time, money, and human resources as challenges to translating research findings into action. One respondent said: “Difficulty in a professional organization is convincing management/members that academic research generalizes to the ‘real world.’ There is a perception that an academic article moves the discussion to the theoretical realm and away from practical consequences.”

Some respondents also sense that organizations are reluctant to act on research that does not fit or support current agendas and priorities. Another respondent wrote:

There’s an embedded assumption in this question that facts change hearts and minds, and that anyone who brings these facts to bear can make institutional change. When you work in an institution, there are lots of existing infrastructure built around the way you work. It takes more than new facts (especially when there are so many studies, some of which probably articulate the opposite) to change behavior. Behavior change takes more than an article.

Helping organizations to develop a capacity and willingness to productively absorb insights from research seems to be an important lever for translating research into impact.

Ways of making academic research more accessible and useful

Most respondents think that collaborations between organizations and researchers to define relevant research questions (68 percent) and jointly work on research projects (71 percent) are “very useful.” Informal, voluntary, or consulting relationships are considered less useful. Interestingly, employing researchers on a permanent basis and attending executive education sessions were considered the least useful options.

Respondents shared a number of ideas about how to make academic research more accessible to practitioners, but unfortunately there was no consensus. For example, while many think that academic training sessions for practitioners are at least somewhat useful (74 percent), a number of respondents feel strongly that they are not useful: “The problem isn’t that the practitioners don’t understand the researchers. That’s a pretty arrogant assumption on the researchers’ part. It’s more the other way around: The researchers don’t understand the dynamics that the practitioners must live with. Why not have training sessions run by practitioners for researchers?”

Overall, respondents were dissatisfied with the state of interactions between researchers and practitioners. This is partly due to a perceived lack of understanding of each other’s realities and different interests, agendas, and priorities. Many respondents were quite skeptical about whether this situation can improve or whether there is a real willingness for improvement.

The main strategic challenges that research should—but often cannot—tackle

Respondents provided us with a long and broad wish list of topics and strategic challenges that research could tackle. It is clear that many organizations have significant requirements for specific research that supports their programs and locations, and that accommodates the characteristics, dynamics, and needs of the sectors they target. Clearly, generally available academic and practitioner research may not directly provide answers and useful insights for those purposes.

A frequent demand for research lies in evaluating performance (particularly internal and external benchmarking) and impact evaluations (defining objective and valid indicators). Another frequently voiced need was help in reviewing and evaluating existing knowledge to synthesize general findings and important knowledge gaps. All of these are areas where direct engagement and joint work with researchers will be most useful.

Research, however, is not a substitute for experimentation and entrepreneurship. Interventions in the real world are the main ways in which opportunities, solutions, and potential desired and undesired outcomes are discovered. Research mainly observes and explains why and how things work or don’t work. It does not provide recipes and concrete answers. But researchers can help organizations learn more systematically and objectively. One respondent noted, “Separating myth from fact in data collection and analysis. Researchers can bring in an objective, even naive, perspective that can be valuable to help break through cognitive blocks.”

What many respondents seem to need most are the additional brainpower of researchers that have the time, capacity, and commitment to help think through and inform complex issues and decisions, and help interpret the consequences of any action they take. One person responded, “The most useful thing would be if researchers actually talked and met with those who we fund (grassroots, community-based civil society groups) and learned about the challenges they face, and asked them what information or knowledge they could use—if more research could serve those needs, that would go a long way toward making research more relevant.”

Many voiced needs for help with managerial issues such as HR, operations, change management, fundraising, marketing, strategic planning, and others. In these areas, we probably have sufficient knowledge. Training and skill development might be more helpful than investing in research. Thus, research is not a substitute for the hard work required to build an efficient, well-managed organization.

Final thoughts

What sources of knowledge and insight do people trust and why? Is the trust legitimate? Consultants and academics have their own unique agendas that tempt them to over-deliver and over-interpret findings, and thus stretch their validity. Making valid and useful research claims is hard. Ph.D programs invest years of training to equip scholars with the techniques they need to conduct research and establish valid research findings. But even the most sophisticated methods allow for only approximations of the truth. Thus, it is important for people to retain a healthy skepticism about simple and convincing answers and recipes. We believe that the best way forward for most organizations is to build a strong evidence-based culture. In great organizations, this is often coupled with inspiring leadership that constantly brings the mission of the organization into the day-to-day work, and at the same time relentlessly works to keep the levels of ambition and expected performance up. These organizations might also become platforms for a more problem-driven and engaged form of research, where researchers work “with” not “for” organizations.

We sincerely thank our respondents who provided us with reflections on important questions. We hope that this article provides the seeds for a constructive discussion on the role of research, and the ways to make it more productive for understanding and solving social problems and creating beneficial social change.

About the Respondents

  • A total of 1,892 people with an average of 18 years work experience responded to the survey.
  • Respondents work at organizations based in 46 countries, including Papua New Guinea! The majority of respondents, 56 percent, work for organizations operating in the United States
  • One-third of the organizations were founded since 2000, one-third are more than 30 years old; 6 percent were founded before 1900; and the oldest organization was founded in 1231.
  • Almost 40 percent of the organizations generate some income from sales of products or services; 11 percent are profitable; and 19 percent recover between 70 and 100 percent of costs.
  • Together, the organizations have more than 1.6 million full-time and 400,000 part-time employees.
  • Almost half of respondents work for nonprofit organizations, 13 percent for foundations, 9 percent for social enterprises, and 6 percent for non-governmental organizations. Of the 22 percent who specified “other,”, most work for consultancies.
  • The most popular issue areas that organizations target are education (20 percent), social services (14 percent), and health (9 percent).
  • More than one-third, 37 percent, of the organizations have in-house research departments.

1 We used the following categories of publications: academic publications (e.g., the Academy of Management Review, the Strategic Management Journal, the Nonprofit Quarterly); practice-oriented journals (e.g., Stanford Social Innovation Review, Harvard Business Review, California Management Review); reports and papers published by international organizations (e.g., World Bank, United Nations, USAID); reports and papers published by associations (e.g., European Foundation Centre, European Venture Philanthropy Association, Center for Effective Philanthropy); and reports and papers published by consulting companies (e.g., FSG, Bridgespan, Monitor, McKinsey)

Johanna Mair and Christian Seelos, “The Role of Research in Social Innovation.”