Many nonprofit professionals know the value of using research-based, evidence-based, and best-practices in their programming. Yet, many don’t have a clear framework of the full scope of how research impacts their programs and the entire sector.

Working as a nonprofit professional means having leadership command over understanding 5 categories of research and how they may or not benefit your organization’s mission and the community members that you serve.

Tip 1:

Empower your entire staff team by supporting them in exploring the 5 Types of Research in the Nonprofit Sector & Their Importance.

Tip 2:

Allot at least 5% of all staff members’ time to engage in and/or explore alignments between their roles and the 5 categories of research. This way, they can up-level their professional and personal goals.

5 Types of Research in the Nonprofit Sector


There are 5 categories of research that interact with the nonprofit sector. These directly and indirectly impact everyone’s programs and roles. Below, you find a short description of each category and the who, what, and how.

1 |   Academic research | Academic researchers want to study the oppression and barriers that your program participants experience in order to communicate those barriers to the larger public. Though less frequent, academic researchers also partner with organizations on studying a potential tool or curriculum to improve a social problem, developing viable solutions.

Who: Folks with Ph.D.s and Ed.D. working for universities, researcher centers, and foundations.

What: Typically, the focus is on how social issues impact people’s lives.

How: Some researchers desire quantitative data that organizations already have in order to run statistical analysis and examine aspects of the social issues or the validity of a new tool or curriculum. Still other times, researcher employ deep and gradual data collection methods through in-depth interviews, observations, and surveys. For example, Dr. Morghan Vélez Young-Alfaro published this article after completing a three-year study of school and youth development programming inside a youth prison. Other examples in this category of research include testing the validity of a new tool or curriculum with a portion of community members while withholding the tool from another portion in order to compare the impact of the tool.

2 |   Program evaluation | Program evaluators typically work externally as a third-party consultant. They partner with organizations to study the effectiveness of the programs that are intended to improve or address a social issue. Sometimes, program evaluators also collaborate with organizations to embed evaluation practices into the fabric of the programs so that staff can sustainably run their own evaluations.

Who: Folks with master’s degrees and doctorates working for consulting firms, research centers, and as lone consultants.

What: Typically, the focus is on examining the program data to see if the program is doing what it is intended to do. The results of this focus help organizations to identify their strengths and leverage those strengths to address any programmatic weaknesses.

How: Program Evaluators go about their work in a variety of ways. Some manage the evaluation by staying a great distance from the organization that they’re partnered with, receiving quantitative data and running the numbers at their own offices. Still some Program Evaluators, like Anchoring Success, rely on the participatory approach where program staff participate in data collection and analysis; in these cases, if there is missing data or damage/unreliable data, the third-party evaluator doesn’t walk away, but rather helps the organizing fix that so that the evaluation can be as fruitful as possible.


3 |   Research focused on sector trends and initiatives | These researchers typically use textbook best-practices to study a specific features of the nonprofit sector and adjacent sectors. They are often hired by foundations and other sorts of funders as consulting researchers. Some foundations and research centers even maintain such researchers on their staff teams.

Who: Folks with master’s degrees and doctorates working independently or as staff at research centers or foundations.

What: Typically, the focus is on niche areas of the nonprofit sector such as the gender pay gap, gender leadership gap, funding channels, etc. For example, Board Source has their regular Leading With Intent research report.

How: These researchers desire quantitative and qualitative data in order to run analyses of the niche area.


4 |    Participatory action research |  Unlike the above three, participatory action research (PAR) is an approach to research that is fundamentally about close collaboration with an organization’s staff team and program participants. Where researchers are the specialists in the above categories, in PAR, the staff and program participants are the specialists. The knowledge and experiences of staff and program participants are central to informing all phases of how the research unfolds. Ultimately, staff and program participants become researchers and the formal researchers become facilitators of the process. Here is an example written by the Nonprofit Quarterly writers SARAH ZELLER-BERKMAN, CAROLINA MUÑOZ-PROTO AND MARIA ELENA TORRE on how participatory action research works in youth programming.

Who: Folks with master’s degrees and doctorates facilitate the process, but work for researcher centers, universities, research-focused foundations, or as independent consultants. The important thing here is that the who also includes any one framed as a “subject” in the above research categories.

What: Typically, the focus is on exploring social issues alongside staff and community members in order to develop and pilot solutions.

How: The researchers (formal, staff, and program participants) collaboratively design the research process, co-facilitate data collection, and collaborate to get the data analysis done and information disseminated to the right people.


5 |   Use of research findings in designing, developing, and implementing programs |  Community-based organizations frequently rely on existing program models and curriculums that are informed by research findings. In this case, the organizations are using evidence-based and research-based programming.

Who: Practitioners who coordinate and lead effective programs in the community.

What: Typically, the focus of the practitioners is to find and use specific approaches and strategies for healing or addressing a social issue that is central to their organizational mission. For example, Focus Forward’s Bright Future Program implements research-based curriculum with teen parents who are system-involved.

How: The practitioners attend formal trainings with the official trainers of the evidence-based and research-based programs and curriculums. Some of the programs and curriculums require implementation and data collection to unfold in a specific way in order to ensure that the material is implemented as intended in its initial design.

Why did we develop 2 Tips videos?


The Anchoring Success team trusts the talent and sophistication of professionals in community-based nonprofit organizations. We know that many professionals and organizational leaders do not have the funds to partner with specialists (like us) and/or the time to strategize on what might seem like extra projects.

Therefore, we launched these 2 Tips videos to support you with making tweaks, adjustments, and refinements in programs and operations — doable for busy professionals like you!