How our nonprofit partners with academics to conduct internal HR research

How our nonprofit partners with academics to conduct internal HR research
You don’t need a department of in-house social scientists to do your own people research. Partnering with an academic can be a win-win, furthering the science and helping you make data-driven organizational decisions.

At Community Solutions, an international non-profit with 62 employees, we are working to end homelessness and the conditions that create it. We help communities draw on existing, successful problem-solving tools and strategies from diverse sectors — including public health, design, and quality improvement — to create effective solutions to complex social problems.

But as an organization, it’s not enough for us to just focus on the services we deliver; we must also ensure that our own organization runs effectively and continues to evolve. To do this, we at Community Solutions maintain a growing portfolio of social science research collaborations that we use to inform our own internal practices.

If you’re an organization of means, you can afford do your own research internally. But most organizations — nonprofits and small businesses alike — must find other ways to collect and assess internal data. If the questions you’re looking to solve are crucially important, but you don’t have the means or resources to solve them yourself, maybe you can find people who are interested in the same problem.

Where might you find such people?

There are people all over the world interested in solving real problems using real data from real organizations. They’re in universities and business schools everywhere and these academics are looking to investigate all manner of questions about how people come together to get work done. Partnerships with academics represent an almost perfect union of interests — academics will often work for data and to publish or share the work. Depending upon their stature and where they are in their career, they may even work in lieu of money. Your organization represents an ecosystem ripe for measurement and respectful tweaking and experimentation. If you choose to partner with an academic in this experimentation, you’re setting yourself up for a low cost, high quality investigation using the tools of rigorous social science.

At Community Solutions, we run a number of studies and experiments on our own organization with the help of external academic partners. This includes an exploration of curiosity in the workplace, a study of how our organizational values manifest using behavioral economics, and an ongoing Organizational Network Analysis. These studies have provided us with a deeper understanding of our own organization and we’re currently validating initial findings to see how we can act on the data; we also plan to publicly share what we’ve learned later this year. We’re not special, and given that we recommend academic partnerships as a solution you should consider, what follows are a couple of thoughts on how you could set this up within your own organization.

What to do, and with whom?

  • Figure out what it is you’re looking to answer or explore. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Do not underestimate the time required to have thought through the question. Make sure it’s important not just to you, but also to other members of your organization.

  • Find a friendly academic. With question in hand, you’re now on the hunt for someone interested in testing potential solutions. If you’ve been in academia, leverage those networks to start building connections. Start talking about this to anyone who will listen — it may lead to a person or group that can help you. Use search engines to find academics or researchers who have published or spoken about your question and “cold” contact them. Be respectful of their time, but outline the potential win-win that a possible collaboration could harness. Our curiosity in the workplace researcher, Spencer Harrison of Boston College, was initially identified by another collaborator, but approached with a “cold” email. As was our organizational values researcher, Erin Krupka of the University of Michigan, who we contacted after seeing a presentation at Collective Intelligence 2016. Always be on the lookout!

Once you’ve got a question and a collaborator, it’s time to design some experiments. In our experience, it’s important to think through the following as you build this body of work:

  • Costs - Running internal experiments will take some combination of time, money, and access. Are these costs worth it? Can you afford the costs throughout the duration of the experiment?
  • Participation - You may need a certain sample size to run a robust experiment. Do you have it? Will you have it for the duration of the experiment? Is that reasonable for the organization? Is it worth it?
  • Alignment - Get your leadership bought in and excited about the reasons for conducting a specific experiment. Make sure the employees being impacted understand why you’re conducting this experiment and why it’ll be valuable for them.
  • Plan for action - What do you plan to do with the answers to your question? Are you prepared to act on the data? How will you operationally change as a result of this work, and is everyone clear that data-driven change is a required outcome? If you are asking really interesting questions, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have at best suggestive findings (requiring more exploration) or at worse null findings (requiring more exploration).

By thoughtfully combining your needs and questions with those of an academic (or two), you can explore and develop research-driven operational changes.

David is the Chief Learning Officer at Community Solutions. He is responsible for articulating, coordinating, and enabling learning across all organizational levels in the service of Community Solutions’ mission to end homelessness and the conditions that create it. Community Solutions is always looking to expand their portfolio of collaborators. You can get in touch with him at