This article appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 16, 2019
By Michael Theis

A new guide for grant makers, community-focused nonprofits, and the researchers who study their efforts calls for a fresh approach to research. The power imbalance between grant makers and the smaller charities they support can result in research that fosters resentment and suspicion among the individuals they hope to help.

The guide, “Why Am I Always Being Researched?” comes from Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit that since its founding in 2016 has given more than $30 million to Chicago-area charities. Focused on advancing equity among minority communities in one of the most segregated cities in the nation, the group is a “startup-style philanthropy fund” that seeks to maximize its impact by funding smaller groups that hold promise, says founder and CEO Liz Dozier. It also runs some programs of its own.

Like many grant makers, Chicago Beyond seeks to inform its giving by gathering data and quantifying a nonprofit’s impact or the potential of programs it may support.

Dozier and her staff at Chicago Beyond realized their well-intentioned desire for data was met with skepticism by the subjects of that research. In their guide, they outline inequities they say exist among major grant makers, grantees, and the people nonprofits serve — and offer ways to minimize these.

For example, potential grantees, eager to receive a significant sum, are often asked to test different ways of delivering services before they get a grant from a foundation.

“Research, and what comes out of that, really drives dollars. It drives decisions that people make,” said Dozier. “But sometimes our nonprofit partners can’t afford a research study. It’s literally out of reach. Who can afford a … $600,000 research study to quote-unquote validate what you’re doing?”

And even if they could afford it, nonprofits would have to make tough decisions about which program participants are slotted into a control group versus the group receiving the experimental approach. What may start as a well-intentioned effort to validate a charity’s approach can end up hurting the communities it seeks to serve.

“There was a young man who literally wanted to be in an after-school program but didn’t sign up because he was in the control group for a research study, completely unrelated,” said Shruti Jayaraman, director of learning at Chicago Beyond. “He thought that by signing a paper saying ‘I’m in a control group’ that what he was signing his name to was saying, OK, I won’t get services anywhere.”

Jayaraman said that kind of unintended error is common enough that grant makers and charities need to be vigilant about preventing it.

“This is not just one kid. It’s many, many kids we know and many, many kids we don’t know,” said Jayaraman. “There’s a policy and decision-making impact that’s really big, and then there’s a very human impact.”

Other hazards that can occur when philanthropists shape research without input from community members: The wrong questions are asked, the data is gathered improperly, or the results are misinterpreted, Dozier says.

For instance, a study using data from police-operated gunshot detection systems, intended to quantify the impact of gun-violence prevention efforts, may falter due to decisions about where to place the detection equipment or an inability to discern who fired the shots or why.

In minority communities subject to more frequent police shootings and police surveillance, those factors matter, but the data can produce misleading conclusions.

“If you are in that community every day, whether you are a community member or a cop, the question comes back to you: Well, whose gun was it?” said Jayaraman. “If you’re not living there, that question doesn’t come to you.”

To guard against pitfalls like these, Chicago Beyond’s guidebook encourages donors and charities to engage the communities they hope to impact.

Oftentimes, that means pounding the pavement, identifying the most vulnerable people you want to research and inviting them not just to participate in the study but to participate in its design: determining which questions to ask and how to ask them, for example.

The authors also stress the importance of sharing the results of studies with members of the group that was examined.

“Evidence and research can end up being a crutch that works in service of inequity if we’re not conscious of it,” said Jayaraman. “The natural thing is to turn to evidence and to say, Let’s look for something evidence-based and that will guide us. But to the extent that you know of the inequities built into that evidence, you are just recreating the problem.”

For more on how to ensure research advances equity, see the full Chicago Beyond report here.