So What’s This Research Stuff All About So What’s This Research Stuff All About
COMM-ORG Papers Volume 17, 2011

So What’s This Research Stuff All About?

Rebecca Paradiso & Kate MacCrimmon


Introduction: What is Community Based Research?
What Should an Organizer Know About CBR?
How Can Research Help an Organizer?
How Should an Organizer Decide What Research to Do?
What Does an Organizer Need to Know to Find a Researcher?
What is a Memorandum of Understanding, and Why Do I Need One?
What Does Community Organizing Look Like When CBR is Applied?
So Tell me More about Data Ownership and Publication…?
About the Authors

Introduction: What is Community Based Research?

So, you have been working with a community on any number of social problems; pollution from a local factory is making neighborhood kids sick, the school system is going down the toilet, crime rates are up – you name it. You already know who you want to target to address the issue and how you are going to get your members to show up at the town hall meeting you have arranged for next month. Still you are wondering, “Now, what else do we need to do to make sure that we win this issue? Hmmm, maybe there’s some local public health facts and figures that can help support our claims…that might be a quick solution…but what if what we really need is cold, raw data that hasn’t been collected? Now what do we do?” Well, it sounds like what you need to do is some research!

Now the idea of research may conjure up memories of academics and scientists coming to “help” or “save” the communities you work with. Academics have long been accused of “helicopter research”1 – the idea that outside researchers fly into communities for a short time, collect data to meet their own needs, and then swiftly fly away without further contact. Sound familiar? Still, there is hope for the skeptical among you...which may be all of you after that introduction! A less traditional approach to research– referred to as community-based research (CBR)2 – is a model in which “success” is defined by completing goals identified by a community group or organization. In this model, community members are involved in all stages of the research process.
There are a group of CBR principles and core values3 that are widely accepted among practitioners of this approach. Theses principles and core values include:

  1. CBR recognizes a community as a unit of identity. Members of a community are linked by shared characteristics or circumstances such as racial or ethnic identity; geography; age; etc. CBR recognizes the connections between community members that contribute to a shared identity.

  2. CBR builds on strengths and resources within the community. Regardless of income levels or other material resources (or lack thereof), every community has strengths. Places of worship, neighborhood associations or other organizations may offer a variety of supports for community members. Use these resources to your advantage!

  3. CBR facilitates collaborative, equitable partnership in all phases of the research. Each research partner brings unique strengths to a CBR project. It is important to honor those talents and to empower all partners to share the wisdom of their experiences.

  4. CBR promotes co-learning and capacity building among all partners. Because each partner brings a unique set of skills and talents to a CBR project, partners can learn from the experiences of one another.

  5. CBR integrates and achieves a balance between research and action for the mutual benefit of all partners. Research is important, but knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not enough. CBR projects strive to capture new information and then take that information to implement meaningful social change.

  6. CBR emphasizes local relevance of public health problems and ecological perspectives that recognize and attend to the multiple determinants of health and disease. Poor health is not purely the result of one’s personal health behaviors; rather, individuals are greatly influenced by the context in which they are located. CBR strives to attend to the many factors that impact health.

  7. CBR involves systems development through a cyclical and iterative process. Working with people requires patience and persistence. The research process in not linear and often we move one step forward only to move three steps back…and that’s okay.

  8. CBR encourages the dissemination of findings and knowledge gained to all partners and involves all partners in the dissemination process. When you collect information through research, make sure to share findings with all research partners, as well as the community at large. Sometimes, having community members share project results with their peers is more socially acceptable and other times, academic partners will be better suited to share results. This depends on your audience and purposes for disseminating your findings.

  9. CBR involves a long-term process and commitment. A CBR project can be very time consuming. The changes communities are fighting for may reflect a long history of systemic oppression, racism and hostility. As we know, this kind of change does not happen quickly.

As you can see, many of the core CBR principles coincide well with organizing values. In fact, the connection between community organizing and CBR is very natural. CBR offers a research process that helps to build relationships and networks for communication; a step that may be overlooked in more traditional Alinsky-style community organizing. In addition, using community-based methods can help to identify questions and cut issues in ways that are meaningful to the people with whom you are working.
That said, community-based research methods (or any research methods, for that matter) do not always include an action step. In other words, once relationships have been built and problems have been identified, deliberate improvements to social justice and system changes are not always taken. That’s where organizing tactics can be utilized to follow-through with plans made in a CBR process. You see, it is the combination of both CBR and organizing tactics that creates a comprehensive approach to community change. In this brief guide, you will gain a better understanding of what CBR is and why organizers should care about it.

What Should an Organizer Know about CBR?

According to sociologist Randy Stoecker4, CBR falls into what’s called a “project-based” approach to research. In this model, research is used to support ideas and problems that community members have identified and want to change. Thus, CBR helps to foster a social change process that we will be talking about in this guide

This project-based model is relatively new to the field of organizing; however, you could think of it like a modern marriage. With equal power, both the research component and the organizing component can enhance and provide significant benefits for the community. The community organizer, the researchers and community members all work together to address problems identified in the community.

Though researchers benefit from the results of this research too, organizers must work hard to prevent researchers from taking their own research agenda and “performing” research on a community. As an organizer, you know that communities may be wary and/or intimidated by researchers, academics or anyone who may come across as a “professional” or an “expert.” They may reject information from these sources purely because it comes from someone who is not “one of us.” An organizer is already considered an outsider to the community, so bringing in yet another outsider can be a delicate maneuver.  As mentioned, a dark history of performing research on community members and committing other human injustices has not been forgotten… 

With this in mind, the community, the community organizer and researchers may need to spend a good deal of time together just to build trust and a stable relationship before research can ever begin. The magic of using CBR, however, is that once all participants have experienced a successful change, the relationships that have been created and nurtured can provide momentum and trust to tackle future projects.

How Can Research Help an Organizer?

There are many ways that CBR can enhance organizing efforts. We like some of the more detailed applications described by veteran organizer Will Collette.5 A summary of his recommendations from his twenty plus years of organizing are as follows:

In the end, CBR data can provide the ammunition to make changes to policy or social structures and can also bring a sense of accomplishment to organizing efforts. With this information, community organizers are well situated to take actions that result from the research process.

How Should an Organizer Decide What Research to Do?

Ah, the million dollar question: What should we research? In a CBR model, deciding what topic is important to research ideally lies in the hands of the community. Now to be honest, this is not always the how things shake out on the ground. Sometimes those people who facilitate research projects – such as the organizer and the academics – may have ideas about what to research6. It is fine to suggest these ideas as long as the needs and wants of involved communities are considered. In other cases, community members may know exactly what they want to address with research. For example, there may be an overwhelming consensus concerning the need for information about graduation rates for all students in the district. Such data could help demonstrate the real disparities within and across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups in the school system. This task might be best accomplished by the organizer who could contact the school district or an organization that could provide this information. In other instances, community members may prefer to conduct their own research with the help of the organizer to simply support or draw attention to their efforts. Either way, organizers need to ask community members what role they would like him/her to play in order to facilitate a successful organizing campaign.

The beauty of incorporating community-based methods into your organizing efforts is that you are probably already doing research, even though you might not call it that by name. When you are knocking on doors or holding house meetings to learn about issues of importance to community members, you are collecting data; you are doing research. What’s important is that you systematically document what issues are important to people and demonstrate consensus - or at least partial consensus – around the topics the community decides to pursue. As such, there is a greater likelihood of selecting a topic that is meaningful to community members and it is likely to garner their attention and participation. As you know, when people care about an issue, change is more likely to happen.

What Does an Organizer Need to Know to Find a Researcher?

There is more than one answer to this question!  Perhaps it’s best to start by asking who, besides myself, can do research? As we have already mentioned, it is quite likely that you are already doing research, but what’s missing is the systematic documentation. This may or may not be within the time or skill range that an organizer has. Therefore we offer up some other people who can help conduct research if that is the case for you7:

Who conducts research is often dependent on what size group you are working with, your time constraints and financial considerations.  Using your own community members and volunteers is a good way to organize people.  If budget allows, you can hire private companies for the kind of research that requires technical expertise such as testing water for pollutants. Or . . .  read on!

Other options include contacting faculty and research scientists at local universities. Some universities have what’s called a “Science Shop”, which is defined as “a facility, often attached to a specific department of a university or an NGO (non-governmental organization) that provides independent participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society8” This is good news for the community organizer and the community! Science shops are accessible by the community for little or no cost because they provide undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to do CBR as part of their class work9. Some students even continue on and do their postgraduate studies on issues suggested by a community. This resource can be helpful, but of course caution must be taken since these are still students who can lack in experience as well as tried and true expertise. As you see, having a better idea of whom you can assist you in gathering the additional data you need can help make your case that much more successful!

What is a Memorandum of Understanding, and Why Do I Need One?

So far we have reviewed what CBR is, how to decide on what topics to research and how to find a researcher, but we have talked less about who takes on what tasks within the CBR team. For this reason, we introduce the memorandum of understanding (MOU). A MOU, or a memorandum of agreement (MOA), is an important document to create before starting a community-based research project. The purpose of an MOU is to clearly spell out the roles and responsibilities of community and academic partners, as well as to outline the rights of community partners to review and approve all research materials10.

Creating a MOU before starting a research project helps to create a transparent process from the get-go. As mentioned, an MOU provides a space for all partners to express their goals, needs and anticipated contributions to the project. That said, an MOU helps to hold all partners accountable for following through with the commitments they have made. So, if it seems like some project partners are slacking or are just not following through with project goals, take a look at the MOU to clarify what each person said they would contribute. If it is clear that a partner is not fulfilling their duties, the MOU offers an easy reference to remind people of their agreed upon responsibilities. To get a better sense of what an MOU looks like, you can find examples on the web. The University of Washington – Seattle Community-Campus Partnerships for Health website11 lists several MOU samples that you can look over and adjust for use in your own work. One of the most useful examples listed at the website is an MOU template from the Wellesley Institute,12 which details what information should be included in an MOU. According to the Wellesley Institute, the six main components of an MOU are as follows:

  1. Describing the purpose of a CBR project

  2. Describing the guiding principles for a CBR project

  3. Describing the roles and responsibilities for CBR project team members

  4. Describing the decision-making process for a CBR project

  5. Describing the access to/dissemination of data

  6. Describing the process evaluation

As you can see, it is important that all partners understand their purpose, and their roles, in CBR projects, and creating an MOU can help.

What Does Community Organizing Look Like When CBR is Applied?  

When working on social change projects from a grass-roots level, a very useful process to understand is the “Project Based Research Cycle” (see figure below13). This cycle is broken down into 4 steps: diagnosis, prescription, implementation and evaluation, which we will describe in more detail:

  1. The first stage is diagnosis. At this stage, project partners determine the issue they want to address. Basically, what is the problem? Various forms of research, such as community assessments, can be used to find out who – and how many – are experiencing a specific issue, when the issue started, what they believe is causing it and how urgently the issue must be addressed.

  2. The second stage is prescription. At this stage, the group determines what to do about the issue.  If there are several possible solutions to pick from, the group will need to consider which option will be most feasible and likely to be successful. In essence, this is the stage at which partners decide what tactics to use. It might be necessary to execute a door-knocking campaign to get a sense of what community members think about the issue. This information gathering process is research!

  3. The third stage is implementation. A this stage, partners put their chosen intervention into motion.  This can include rallies, demonstrations, blockades or other forms of action.  Partners will need to consider who will need to participate and what resources are necessary for successful implementation.

  4. The fourth stage is evaluation. At this stage, the group analyzes the results and data to see if their efforts were successful. It is important for all partners to have a sense of how they will know when their goals have been completed. This also includes reporting results to the community at-large through any variety of mediums: the news media, town hall meetings, social network updates, scholarly publications, etc. Finally, it is important for the group to reflect on what improvements might be helpful for next time.

Our hope is that this model will help you to visualize the iterative cycle by which community organizers, community members and researchers circle through on the path to social change.

Now that we have reviewed the project-based research cycle, let’s kick things up a notch. One way to effectively and systematically incorporate the CBR principles into community organizing is by conducting research throughout the four steps of the project-based model. To get a better sense of what this looks like, we recommend reviewing the CBR process developed by Randy Stoecker 14 . Remember, in an organizing project, you will want to go through each of the following steps at all four points in the project-based research cycle.

  1. Choosing the question: Regardless if an organizer or researcher is facilitating a CBR project, it is important that the community is able to help define the main research question. Determining this critical question is perhaps the most challenging part of this step because it must be formed in a way that can generate useful data. For example, if crime is an issue in your neighborhood, then the research question might be, “What do you think the reason is that we have high rates of crime here in our neighborhood?” This more open-ended question allows for the respondent to share ideas and opinions. You want to avoid questions that “lead the witness [or community member]” with a question like, “Would you like to see this abandoned lot turned into a park?” This type of question does not leave much room for the respondent to share ideas other than her/his opinion of your predetermined solutions. Once you have settled on a research question then, you can start to build a framework for the whole project and determine subsequent questions. A seemingly odd – yet effective! – method for choosing the research question is to work backward. If, for example, people in the community want a safer neighborhood, a good way to begin is by asking what makes for a safe community? What needs to change to make our neighborhood safer? The important thing to consider is how people who actually live in the community think the community could be safer.

  2. Designing research methods: This process is both technical and artistic. You must determine what kind of research methods fit what type of research questions you have. It may be necessary to conduct intensive research, which includes studying one or a few cases intensively to trace patterns. This type of analysis helps to answer “why” questions, such as why are people getting robbed? On the other hand, you may need to do extensive research, which generally asks questions that start with “how many”, such as, “How many people have been robbed?” Several analytic tools such as community assessments, mapping, and surveys can be used to gather data in the community. In addition, these tools can be designed with the help of community members. After all, they are the real local experts and are often able to determine the best method of collecting information from neighbors be it by letter, email, phone, or perhaps door – to – door.

  3. Collecting the data. Here, an organizer can ask, “What data is already available?”, “What data do we need to support our issue?”, and “How much work will it be to collect the data?” Find out whether any government agency has compiled the kind of data you are looking for, for example, demographic information based on census tracts, or other information that can be pulled from electronic databases. For example, perhaps crime statistics from specific geographic areas are kept on a city database online. Sometimes university professors or researchers have compiled data that you can access. Keep in mind the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)15 –It may be necessary to remind governmental officials of this act in order to get them to release information. If information is not available, the question then is “Who could get the information?” You can decide if this will be an outside academic expert, a community person with training, organization staff, students who, ideally, can use data collection as part of their service learning class, or community members.

  4. Analyzing the Data. This step, too, can be somewhat tricky. It’s easy to jump to conclusions with the data and say, “This neighborhood shows a high teenage pregnancy rate and a high rate of infant mortality – one must be causing the other!” Well, in fact we must go back to the idea of extensive and intensive research mentioned earlier in Step two. Using extensive research and finding out how many teenage girls got pregnant and how high the rate of infant mortality is, won’t give you the why for the number of teenage pregnancies nor the why for the high rate of infant mortality that intensive research will give. You must dig deeper to examine the why by talking to the teenage girls who got pregnant, and by talking with their health care providers, to listen and hear from their point of view. From that point, any program that is implemented to address this issue is likely to be much more successful because you’ll know what factors that lead to the why the problem started in the first place. This is the step in the process where involving community members can be really helpful if not critical. They often times know why teenage girls are getting pregnant and can account for the high rate of infant mortality better than an outsider because they know their community best. Together with the extensive research, you can put together a much better picture of what is really contributing to such a high rate of teenage pregnancies and a high rate of infant mortality and do so without making assumptions. This process puts community members in a place of importance and adds to all this community building and relationship building we’ve been talking about!

  5. Report the results. “How to report data?” is a question to ask working backward again. If the goal of the project was installing more streetlights to make a specific corner safer, and this was achieved, then distributing written materials, holding a community forum, presenting a “report” in the form of community theater form, or perhaps a photographic display would all be appropriate. Having community members present the results can be very empowering for people who have been heavily involved in the research process because it gives them the opportunity to be seen as leaders by members of their own community. Therefore, it makes very good sense for community members to participate fully in deciding how to present project findings at this stage too. Think future leaders for future projects here!

So Tell me More About Data Ownership and Publication…?

So, you are at the point in your research project where community members agree that something is a problem and you have collected evidence supporting their claim. Great, so what do you do now? Use your organizing skills, of course! Taking action based on what we have learned from the research process is often the weakest part of many CBR projects16. Though taking actions that actually influence the well-being of communities is an intended component of CBR processes, some projects end by stating what was learned through focus group data, asset-mapping, etc without actually taking steps to mitigate these problems. While having a clear and organized understanding of how community members think about a certain topic is valid and useful information, taking actions to address these problems in socially and culturally meaningful ways is a crucial component to this type of research. An important difference between traditional top-down research models versus CBR is that in community-based research, the community owns the data.

As an organizer, you already have the skills to identify a target for your issue, and to use tactics that will achieve the results that you are going after. However, when you incorporate CBR methods into your organizing process, you also reap the benefits of obtaining real-time data to support your claims. This information is invaluable, especially when trying to make changes to policy.

While organizers might not be as concerned with the idea of writing up results of CBR projects for scholarly publication, it’s actually not a terrible idea. Being able to demonstrate that your research has been reviewed and accepted by an academic journal adds credence to your efforts and might help to land further grant money or political buy-in down the line. Publications are also a great way to give credit to the community members and organizations that you work with. Community members often co-author CBR articles, which offers a source of pride and empowerment. If your time and interest in writing manuscripts is limited, remember that academics can take the lead on this front.


As you have learned from this brief guide, CBR has a useful role in community organizing. Whether you are looking to gather hard evidence to support a long-understood community belief, or feel that incorporating academic minds will improve your efforts, adding research to your community organizing efforts has many benefits. Now we’re not trying to make this whole research thing sound too rosy. There can be drawbacks. As mentioned, organizers and community folks alike must be careful not to swoop down and start calling the shots. Remember, true CBR is a collaborative process whereby all partners benefit from the collaboration. Enjoy the ride!


Alinsky, S. D. (1971). Rules for radicals: Vintage Books New York.

Brown, L. (2005). Appendix 11: Ten commandments of community-based research In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing and community building (2nd Edn.). Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Collette, W. (2004). Research for Organizing. In L. Staples (Ed.), Roots to Power (2nd ed.) New York: Greenwood Publishing.

Israel, B., Schulz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. [Article]. Annual Review of Public Health, 19(1), 173.

LaVeaux, D., & Christopher, S. (2009). Contextualizing CBPR: key principles of CBPR meet the Indigenous research context. Pimatisiwin, 7(1), 1.

Minkler, M. (Ed.). (2005). Community Organizing and Community Building for Health (2nd ed.). Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Minkler, M., & Wallerstein, N. (Eds.). (2008). Community-Based Participatory Research for Health: From Process to Outcomes (2nd Edn). San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Sardar, Z., & Loon, B. V. (2001). Introducing Science. USA: Totem Books

Stoecker, R. (1999). Are academics irrelevant?: Roles for scholars in participatory research. American Behavioral Scientist, 42(5), 840-854.

Stoecker, R. (2005). Research methods for community change: A project-based approach: Sage Publications, Inc.

Thomas, L., Donovan, D., & Sigo, R. (2010). Identifying community needs and resources in a native community: A research partnership in the Pacific Northwest. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8(2), 362-373.


1 LaVeaux & Christopher (2009)

2 According to Drs. of public health, Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein (2008), community-based research (CBR) is also referred to by other names including: community-based participatory research (CBPR), participatory action research (PAR), action research (AR), etc. This community-centered, partnership-driven approach to community change that strives to empower community members by honoring their expertise and intimate understanding of community issues.

3 Israel et al. (1998)

4 Stoecker (2005)

5 Collette (2004)

6 Stoecker (1999)

7 Stoecker (2005)

8 Sardar & Loon (2001)

9 For more information about science shops, consider visiting these websites: The International Science Shop Network, Science Shop at University of Waterloo, Canada ,

10 Thomas et al. (2010)

11 For several examples of MOUs, see the examples listed at the University of Washington – Seattle Community-Campus Partnerships for Health website:

12 For more detailed information about what to include in an MOU, see this detailed template from the Wellesley Institute:

13 Stoecker (2005)

14 Stoecker (2005)

15 For more information about the Freedom of information Act (FOIA), visit the U.S. Department of State’s website at:

16 Stoecker (1999)

About the Authors

Rebecca Paradiso is doctoral student in social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she also received her master’s and undergraduate degrees in social work. Her research interests include health disparities, socioeconomic and cultural determinants of health, qualitative data analysis and community-based research methods. Rebecca has managed several health-related community-based projects. In her current role, she is coordinating an educational program that uses a promotora, or health promoter, model. In this project, she has helped to create a curriculum for Latino families who have a child on the autism spectrum. Rebecca is bilingual in English and Spanish and enjoys working with cultural communities in the United States and abroad.

Kate MacCrimmon is a returning student about to embark on graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Kate recognized the need for better community support systems for families after owning and operating an in-home family daycare for over eight years. She recently stepped down from a six month appointment as Acting Director at Neighborhood House Community Center, Madison's oldest community center, during which she was able to put into practice many of the concepts used in this guide.  She continues to be an advisory to the board at Neighborhood House, and to advocate for the well-being of children and families within her community.