Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Disconnect Between Research and Practice: The US Nonprofit infrastructure Mapped

I was on a conference call for the Next Generation Leadership Forum, a coalition of many US nonprofit infrastructure organizations (Idealist, CompassPoint, NCN, BoardSource, GVSU, YNPN and more) all passionate about nonprofit leadership resources and research in the sector.

One person on the call mentioned: Have you seen the most recent Nonprofit Quarterly where David Renz and his team mapped the US Nonprofit Infrastructure?

Only one person answered yes. Let me repeat that...only one person on a call of nonprofit infrastructure organizations was aware of the research that Renz and his team did to map the US Nonprofit Infrastructure.

Does this seem a little odd to you? It did to me, in fact my stomach sunk and I thought why weren't these infrastructure groups involved in creating this map?

To create the map, the researchers looked at the organizational websites, 990 forms, and annual reports. Then they decided on 10 key areas that are needed to keep the nonprofit sector moving forward. I can't list the ten items because of NPQ copy write issues, however I wonder if the infrastructure organizations had been involved in this study, would these 10 areas be the same?

This is a complex issue and something that is tough for me to blog about because I do believe the map is a step in the right direction and what we need in the sector, however I also strongly believe there is a continued disconnect between research and practice that needs to be brought to the surface.

It pains me for researchers and funders to not involve practitioners in research studies because it takes time and money to do so. However if Renz and his team involved US infrastructure groups or coalitions of US infrastructure groups in this research, the findings would be better informed, more comprehensive and much more robust. I realize the editors and editorial board did not want the map to be comprehensive (which is disappointing), however what would the map really look like if Renz and his team involved more infrastructure organizations in the process?

For example: The Education and Leader Development category is missing many national organizations that do mentoring a leadership development: see the Nonprofit Congress's Nonprofit Leadership Sampler for a list.

Also, why aren’t Commongood Careers or Nonprofit HR Solutions (two national organizations that have released important research about the nonprofit employment and workforce) included on the map?

As a caveat: I am a huge fan of David Renz for he has done a lot of great research on nonprofit governance and I like Erin Nemenoff too she's a next gen doctoral student who worked on the project, however I think capacity and funding issues prevented Renz and his team from doing a comprehensive study and involving (many) infrastructure groups during the research process.


ruth McCambridge said...


Your concern about ungrounded research is right on but I would argue with your example. We at NPQ do not want to be a poster child for the perpetuating the gap between research and practice especially since the Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) has always tried to actively act as a relay at the intersection of the two, we'd like to mention that...

1. David Renz and Erin Nemenoff's mapping project was a part of a larger study by the nonprofit Quarterly on the nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructures in the U.S.. This study used a "grounded theory" approach which used a mix of quantative and qualitative data but involved infrastructure practitioners quite extensively both in focusing and guiding the project and in informing its various lines of inquiry through interviews. Some of the interviewees consulted repeatedly for information and guidance, in fact, were in three of the organizations you listed as being on your phone call.

(David Renz did this project with NPQ but his program at UMKC is, as you mentioned, an extraordinary beacon for research that involves and is relevant to practitioners. In fact your readers might want to check out the upcoming conference on governance research co-sponsored by the UMKC Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership and NPQ. It brings nonprofit leaders and researchers together for what has been in the past a very grounded discussion of what needs to be explored next in nonprofit governance.)

2. In that the infrastructure is a system that has grown up organically, is scantily documented to date, and is somewhat fractionalized, there was virtually no chance that we would capture everything in the mapping unless we went with a process that might have captured so much as to make the map unintelligible. We issued our regrets for oversights in the issue of NPQ where the map appeared. Again, we apologise to anyone left out.

3. Re. the ten categories of infrastructure you were nervous about citing, you can always cite anything from NPQ - even if you or any of your readers want to reprint a whole article, a quick email makes that happen post haste!
The information we produce is meant to travel.

4. I think it's too bad that the people on your call had not seen the map. More than 30,000 copies were distributed through a few major national nonprofit and philanthropic networks on top of our regular readers. A number of infrastructure organizations, including a few you listed as being on your call, have asked for multiple copies for their boards and staffs.

Finally, I want to commend you again Heather for your concern about a very critical issue in the sector which is the often very real disconnect between research and practice. Many do not realize the height of the barriers this problem erects for nonprofit leaders. Keep banging that drum!

Ruth McCambridge

Heather Carpenter said...

Ruth thanks for your thoughtful comments and clarification of the process that Renz and his team took to create the map. I am relieved to hear that infrastructure partners were involved in the process.

Erin Nemenoff said...


I do agree that your broader point is very valid, and very important. Academics do need to address the implications of their work on the field of practice, not only by incorporating the valuable insights of practitioners into their research projects, but also in working on projects that are actually of value to those working in the sector.

I would also like to echo Ruth's comments on our project. We were very intentional in incorporating the valued insights of the practitioner community into this piece of research.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to express my support of your blog post re: Renz's infrastructure map. You drew some attention to a real problem in NP research. I can't tell you how many sessions I've attended at academic conferences that talk about "nonprofits" like they're an alien thing - and this from people who are supposed to be "experts" in the field!! Anyway, you and your fellow students can do a lot to change this with your work.

James Weinberg said...

An interesting post and an equally interesting reply, Heather and Ruth. So glad that we have this forum for discussion. Heather, thank you also for including Commongood Careers in your comments and for advocating around our inclusion. Every effort to bring practitioners' voices to the discussion and to include as many under the tent as possible will ultimately move forward all of our work and the sector as a whole. Glad to hear that the study included some of these elements and thank you, Heather, for continuing to push us all to the next level in our work!

Jason Shick said...

I think there is a disconnect in many fields. It's up to the researchers and people in the trenches to work together to find solutions and to make sure that the "best practices" of a particular field are real and don't need to be renamed "best practices in a perfect world". I am currently in the field of education and it amazes me the gap between what is taught (whether in a classroom, at a conference, or even part of a federal or state mandate) and what the real world is like. Interesting post though.