Shared knowledge, Shared values: Exploring questions about collaborative research

In February 2024, the Institute for Social Justice brought together YSJ academics and staff from the VCSE organisations who are currently collaborating on Community Research Grants (CRG). In this blog post, ISJ project managers Vicki and Raphaela reflect on the critical conversations that took place.

Bringing collaborative project leads together 

In 2022, the Institute for Social Justice launched the Community Research Grants to foster research partnerships between academics and VSCE organisations. Built on the ethos of conducting open and democratic research, these collaborations aim to ensure that research is relevant and impactful. To help achieve this, the ISJ has been inviting VCSE organisations for the past two years to submit proposals for research on themes that are important to them.

For the first time since they were launched, academics and VCSE organisations working across all the funded projects came together in February to learn and be inspired by each other. This was through structured discussions around three themes relating to collaborations between universities and VCSE organisation: Big Picture Thinking, Thinking about Values; and Real World Thinking.

‘Big picture thinking’: Why should Universities and VCSE organisations collaborate?

For the first theme we asked, why should universities and VCSE organisations collaborate? Perspectives from academics and VCSE organisations illuminated the potential of collaborations for knowledge exchange, and authentic knowledge generation. Based on this, solutions to pertinent social issues can be co-created.

Community Research Grant event attendees at York St John

 It was also highlighted that collaborations between universities and VCSE organisations have the potential to impact on student experience through improving course materials by utilising real world examples and placements. This could also be a step towards changing the perception of universities, and redefine what they are for and why they exist. In addition to knowledge exchange, groups also reflected on the skills and resource exchanges which are taking place in eaach individual project as academics and VSCE organisations work together.

‘Thinking about values’: How can we prioritise the experience and expertise of the communities we work in?

We then encouraged groups to think about values. For the second question, we asked how we can prioritise the experience and expertise of the communities we work in. Initially, it was argued, that it is important to recognise that expertise is held within communities, and that there are nuances and sensitivities within communities. Related to that, it was critically pointed out that universities needed to practice self-reflection to avoid judgemental language and behaviour towards communities. Instead, communities should have the opportunity to define their own research priorities. Who occupies which role in collaborations is important to define at the start of collaborative projects. Groups also discussed the recruitment of community researchers who can play an essential role in facilitating research projects and contribute to data collection. Research projects need to be collaborative at the core, and this entails co-designing the project itself, make decisions in a participatory way, and ensure that collaborations are critical. Advisory groups were suggested to ensure that co-production persists throughout research projects. As such, participation is not just about the data collection moment, but the whole project from design to dissemination. While collaborations between universities and VCSE organisations can have impact through effectively disseminating evidence, critical voices also highlighted the ethics of sharing, for example, to not create ‘poverty porn’. The importance of being realistic, as well as building relationships characterised by trust were also highlighted.

‘Real world thinking’: How can we make CRG projects sustainable and impactful?

The question of how to create long-lasting impact raised discussion about some of the challenges posed in collaborative working. Delivering co-productive projects takes time, energy, and commitment from those involved. University academics, VCSE practitioners and participants may operate on different timeframes. Moreover, ensuring services and support to users must remain the priority for those on the frontline of VCSE groups. In contemplating this question, attendees shared that, whilst the impact of research may be to highlight alternative delivery methods or new insights, ‘change can be hard’. ‘Business as usual’ is a sticky structure to reshape – especially when services have limited resources and people rely on them. It is, therefore, essential that collaborative research occurs with clear communication, defined timeframes, and empathy between competing priorities. For researchers, maintaining flexibility is key – and an openness to watering the ground, to see what grows.

Can small grants have a real impact that lasts? It seems the answer is, yes. VCSE leads expressed the value of these funding opportunities based on their immediacy, and the prioritisation of VCSE needs. Applying for funding can be a long, laborious process with huge time gaps between applications and funds provided. VCSE groups can also be asked to fit within the criteria of grant schemes, leading to frustration and bending around issues. The CRG structure, which invites groups to put forward their priorities, was seen as raising the impact and sustainability of collaborations as it started with the right questions. It also delivers funding quickly – this goes some way in countering the much-anticipated challenge of staff changes and organisational reshufflings that long-winded funding delivery bids fall victim to. Collaborative research was also described as ‘cascading’, so that despite projects being short-term, the impact is longer lasting. This includes the CRG project’s role as a stepping stone to larger funding bids in future.

Reflections and Actions from the afternoon

Concluding the afternoon, attendees were invited to turn their thoughts inward. Everyone was asked to write one reflection and one action that they will take with them.

For many, thoughts turned to ‘after June’ and what comes next following the CRG projects ending. Actions around this included holding concrete conversations about how collaborators can continue to work together and what may be possible regarding follow-up funding. For the ISJ members, building long-lasting relationships is a key driver of these projects.

A strong theme was also how valuable it was to have a space to share, listen and be listened to. One reflection stated:

“It’s so great to hear people talking about shared understanding, knowledge and lived experience. Before we began this project, there was definitely a perceived detachment between academia/communities. This is true of both service users and practitioners. It’s great that this disconnect is being examined and disrupted by CRG projects.”

Apply for the next CRG project round!

Applications are now open for 2024-2025 CRG projects. We are inviting proposals from voluntary, charity and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to our Community Research Grant programme. Find out more about how to apply on the ISJ CRG webpage.

Application deadline 22 Apil 2024.

Got questions? Attend one of our online briefing events:

Thursday 19 March, 10.30am to 11.30am. Book your place via Eventbrite.

Thursday 11 April, 2.00pm to 3.00pm. Book your place via Eventbrite.