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A framework for partnerships between research organizations and social movements

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Report: Social movements framework - 500 KB

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Executive Summary

Research organizations should work with social movements, in addition to their partnerships with nonprofits and governments. These collaborations can help create a more fair and equal society for many people around the world.

Social movements are networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups, and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities (Diani 1992).

Our research shows that social movements are interested in working with research organizations, but the relationship must be designed to meet the unique needs of the social movement.

Just as research organizations have to adjust their approaches depending on whether they are serving academics, nonprofits or governments, a similar set of intentional alterations to relationships, ways of working, and service offerings will be needed to make the most of this opportunity.

Research partnerships focused on refining theories of change, estimating the burden of societal problems, building monitoring and management systems, audience and message research, and assessing policy options can be valuable. The right approach to partnership will vary depending on the theory of change adopted by social movements: those taking an ’inside game’ policy influencing approach, or focused on ‘community organizing’ have great potential to digest evidence.

Across all such partnerships, research organizations must adapt to accommodate social movements’ particular features. Social movements can be fragmented. Their value-driven worldview can bring risks of motivated reasoning. Some have strong preferences about the types of evidence that are right for them. All social movements have a strong need for sustained relationships of trust. Many have limited funds and limited professional staff time. The identities of those staff may be important, when there are cultural gaps with representatives of the research organization. In many places, social movements grapple with repressive governments and can only make much progress during brief and unpredictable windows of opportunity. 

Flawed partnerships have often brought frustration to both sides. Yet both parties share a deep drive for impact and a spirit of inclusion. Both parties have their unique skills. Many of the advances of which our societies are proudest were won by social movements. The power of evidence, transmitted through the right partnerships, may help those movements to take the next uphill step towards human flourishing.

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