How to find love for evidence-based communications

This guide is intended to provide some general guidance for NGOs seeking to engage in research partnerships to make their communications for social change more effective and evidence-based. In developing this guide, we reached out to several research and communications experts to ask for their advice. 

The resource includes some guidance to consider if you’re thinking about engaging external partners to support you in this process. This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide; rather it’s a starting point to help you think through the steps you might take.

As they say, you must first love yourself before you can love someone else. Or in this case, you must first appreciate what an evidence-based approach can bring to your communications for social change.

Organisations working for human rights and social change are often trying to shift people’s attitudes or encourage them to act. This work is not easy. But take heart! Gathering information—evidence that can help you decide how to shape and deliver your messages—will enable you to communicate more effectively with the people you want to reach.

You can use research to inform any part of a communications effort. Research can help you understand what underlies people’s attitudes and behaviours and how different groups view issues from a cultural, moral and emotional perspective. If you’re in the planning stages of a campaign, you could use research to help you design the campaign.

Research might entail looking more systematically at how your issue is talked about in the media or other public spaces or finding out what others have already learned about the effectiveness of similar communications efforts. If you’re in the midst of a campaign, you can test messages using research methods to get feedback from the kinds of people you’re trying to reach and adjust your messaging to be more effective with them. At the end of a campaign, research can help you evaluate what did and didn’t work.

How to know when it’s time

If your organisation has the interest and motivation to make your communications more effective, it’s time! At its core, adopting an evidence-based approach to communications is about challenging your organisation’s ideas and putting yourself out there, by asking questions and testing your assumptions to make your work stronger.

  1. Make yourself vulnerable. Kickstart this process by encouraging your organisation to embrace a culture of inquiry, learning and humility. It’s helpful to recognize that what we know about the effectiveness of our communications approaches is limited.
  2. Challenge yourself! While all staff don’t need to know how to conduct in-depth research, they do need to be willing to use evidence and to challenge assumptions. Help staff build those muscles by asking questions like, “How do we know that?” or “What assumptions are we making?” and to explain the evidence they’re using to make decisions.
  3. Start small. Often, it can make sense to do a little bit of research at a time, rather than lead off with a big, daunting project. Starting small might also help to build support for and demonstrate the value of research within your organisation with a more limited upfront investment.

Finding the right match

What are the top three questions I should ask a potential research partner to figure out if it’s the right fit?

  1. Do they share our values and approach? You might not be able to find a partner whose agenda and approach completely aligns with yours. However, there must be sufficient overlap for it to make sense for both parties. Think of the things that are essential to you.
  2. Will you leave my organisation’s capacity stronger? It’s a wasted opportunity to just outsource the research without learning anything from the process. Your partner should be willing to research “out loud” so you can learn. Have them talk through how they’re doing the research and why.
  3. Will this be a true partnership? You should respect each other’s expertise and strengths. The process should involve both parties learning from each other.

Making love last

What are the main ingredients of a successful research partnership?

Once your organisation is clear about its research questions and has determined that an external partnership is the best way to go about answering them, the key ingredients of a successful partnership are (1) clear, shared objectives; (2) well-defined terms of the partnership; and (3) regular, effective communication.

Read the full guide here. 

Read more: evidence based communication



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