Why is some research conducted with very high quality, yet it does not affect decisions on where to direct our time and money? What makes research relevant, important, and ultimately lead to positively impacting the world? A considerable portion of resources aimed at doing good at the world goes towards conducting research. In just the animal advocacy space (often considered one of the least research-heavy causes), about $9 million and 40 full-time researchers in the past five years went to work. That number is growing. With increasingly more organizations focusing on research, the importance of designing an effective research agenda is also growing. With so much attention on research, there is a high degree of importance on creating an impactful research agenda. In this post, I will present one meta-method for improving the impact of a research agenda. This post starts by explaining the importance of the theory of change for your research and then elaborates on a method to involve decision-makers in the process of creating your research agenda to maximize the impact of research.
What makes a good research agenda?
A good research agenda should be:
To achieve those qualities, we need to:
Build a Theory of Change
Theory of Change (ToC) is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why the desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It shows how expected outcomes occur because of your work. Having a clear path from the original research to its endline impact will help you choose research questions that are most relevant to your goal. ToC is widely used in the charity world to help organizations and donors ensure the activities conducted directly relate to their endline goals. The same methodology can be used for research-focused organizations.
ToC can help an organization improve its strategy, measurement, communication, and partnership work and, consequently, increase the impact of your work. When you have a complete Theory of Change, it:
Crucial elements in your ToC
When analyzing your path to an impact, you need to think on a few levels. Those levels create the core of your theory of change and showcase a simplified model of your activities. For ToC to be fully informative, it should include more information, for example, assumptions about how a project will work, stakeholders, and how they relate to your intermediate outcomes.
Much has been written on how to create a theory of change, and explaining it is outside of the scope of this post. I recommend these three sources for a comprehensive guide to building your theory of change.
Involve decision-makers to create effective research agendas
In most cases, your Theory of Change will involve your research informing other decision-makers in your space. For example, Charity Entrepreneurship’s (CE) research aims to influence ourselves (what charity we recommend starting), attendees of the CE incubation program (what charity they will start), entrepreneurs starting new EA charities independently (what charities they will start), EA funders (what new projects are worth funding), and other EA-minded organizations working in a given cause area (what intervention to implement). Thus, there are five groups of stakeholders in our research. Below, I present how to involve those stakeholders in the decision-making process.
The above process will ensure that you are making your research relevant to your short- and long-term goals and that your research will be more likely to be utilized and achieve higher impact. You may notice it is a cross-application of spreadsheet decision making (which you can see more on here).
One of the key elements of impactful research is its relevance to decision-makers in your field whose actions you may affect. To ensure that your research will be utilized, remember to root it in your Theory of Change and involve stakeholders to systematically choose the most important questions to explore.