In Theory, In Practice: Part II

In a previous post, I discussed the similarities differences in mindsets in academia and the social sector. Theoretical academic work in the humanities and social science is the study of issues that do at some level impact the social realities seen by non-profits on the ground. But the social sector might reach different conclusions because they are resolving on-the-ground social reality of people. But there is clearly academic work that focuses on solving social issues or work that provides data or theories that could be useful to non-governmental organizations.

Much of my work at Medha has been conducting internal research and pilots to improve internal processes. This work has involved qualitative interviews with the field team and high levels of collaboration with the Knowledge and Operations teams. Doing this type of work internally led me to consider what possibilities exist for collaboration between academic research and social practitioners.

Demonstrating our programs’ impact on students will be a necessity in the near-future for Medha (Photo: Shivani Sharma)

In 2014, the Stanford Social Innovation Review conducted a survey with development practitioners to find out what role research played in their work. Practice-oriented research work was both most-read and regarded as most relevant to their work. 60% of survey respondents said they read research “to help spark new ideas, aid reflection, and get different perspectives” (Seelos and Mair 2014). The kind of research that is most valuable will present new ideas and be immediately applicable. Additionally, a majority of respondents believe that accessing articles is too expensive and that the findings do not reflect their particular situation or context (Seelos and Mair 2014).

This year, I have felt the usefulness of academic work has been most keenly felt when writing grants. One key part of any grant proposal is showing that there is a problem you want to solve, and to describe that problem in depth. Ethnographic data, survey data and raw statistics are the evidence used to describe a problem and it’s depth.  Doing so also allows you to better explain why your proposed project will solve that problem specifically. Ability to access these statistics and research is in this way a kind of currency which allows NGOs to make their case for grant funding. Without this data, many major sources of funding remain out of reach. However, showing this impact can be complicated. For stakeholders, explanations and stories may be enough to show impact. These metrics are also useful internally when an NGO wants to improve their work and tinker with their programs. But it isn’t rigorous enough to produce data that can be used externally.

When NGOs need to measure their impact, through randomized control trials or other tools, academic data collected using academic methods can be crucial to getting the data needed to demonstrate program effectiveness. Indeed, these methods and ways of thinking are utilized to explicitly practice-oriented ends and methods like survey writing are useful in both spaces. Interestingly, 82% of respondents completed in-house research, with 77% also finding this research to be more useful (Seelos and Mair 2014). This makes sense, as it allows NGOs to use academic research methods to focus on their own issues in their own contexts, and pay nothing in access fees. At Medha, we complete extensive internal research, using academic tools like surveys and interviews to measure the effectiveness of our processes and programs in our own context. We also get feedback much faster than otherwise. With most of the things we measure, the external validation of studying our programs academically is unnecessary: simply analyzing out data and making improvements based on that is most useful and efficient.

However, there are reasons why we need academic data and need to use academic research. As mentioned above, academic research lays the groundwork for funding and provides the backing to support theories, which can then be put into practice. Medha is pursuing large-scale research regarding its programs because the organization is at the stage wherein it must start showing results more concretely. We must show, with more certainty, that our programs are helping our students get jobs in the private sector. Such research will produce data which will tell us a story about our programs’ effectiveness and show us the limits of that effectiveness. In the same sense, NGOs take theory and put it into practice and explore the limits of a theory’s usefulness. When applying for a grant, for example, organizations use research to provide the theoretical basis for their proposals.

Did Medha actually help this student land her first job? A new RCT starting this fall will help us find out (Photo: Darshan Negi)

NGOs should be well-equipped to be partner stakeholders in academic research. So is there a way that NGOs and academics can work together more frequently? One way to foster collaboration is for academics to be in contact with NGOs while developing research questions and topics. Academics can use practical knowledge provide by NGOs as the basis for their research from the start, rather than relying on NGOs to provide the case studies for well-researched theories they are looking to defend. Such a method would bring them closer and produce demonstrably practical research that may also be useful to other social sector-actors. Academics can use practical knowledge or practical data as the basis for their research questions, and maybe learn to trust the knowledge produced by NGOs as legitimate, if collected and presented in a rigorous manner. If academics and NGOs can align their needs correctly, they could bring together the practical and theoretical in a manner that produces important academic findings in both spheres.

It is possible that the lack of collaboration is in large part because there is a perceived gap between academics and practitioners (Green 2016). These two “worlds” exist repeatedly, with little overlap and seemingly few interpersonal connections between the two. Greater connections between these communities could allow them to discuss possibilities for research and collaboration more frequently. The many current AIF Fellows who have plans to attend graduate school will have the opportunity to bridge this gap so long as they hold this fellowship experience in mind.

[1] Seelos, Christian, and Johanna Mair. “The Role of Research in Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 19 June 2014. Accessed at:
[2] Green, Duncan. “How Can Academics and NGOs Work Together? Some Smart New Ideas.”, 16 August 2016. Accessed at:


Jackson was born in Calcutta, India, and raised in the American Midwest, and completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University (NU) in June 2017. After spending the summer studying Urdu in Lucknow with the Critical Language Scholarship Program, Jackson is excited to be returning there to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Medha. Building upon his undergraduate coursework, where he studied Political Science, Asian Languages and Cultures, and International Studies, and experience interning with an NGO in India through the NU’s Global Engagement Studies Institute, Jackson is looking forward to working full time in the Indian social sector. Throughout the Fellowship, Jackson is eager to serve Lucknow's youth, further developing his language abilities in Hindi and Urdu, and join a community of Indians and Americans committed to pursuing social change in India. After the Fellowship, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in policy or academia.

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