In this blog, Jonny interviews Jacob Diggle, Head of Strategy and Insight at Mind, to discuss collaboration between academic and voluntary organisations, reflecting on Jacob’s decade of experience working with charities and public sector organisations.
The EDIT lab has a particular focus on open and collaborative approaches to science and values the mutual benefits to working with voluntary sector organisations. These relationships take many forms, from our collaboration with MQ Mental Health Research on the Repeated Assessment of Mental health in Pandemics (RAMP) study, to Master’s student placements and collaborative (CASE) PhD studentships.
During his placement with Mind, the mental health charity, former EDIT lab Master’s student, Jonny, experienced the importance of communication and collaboration between academic and voluntary organisations. This interview is the first in a miniseries of blog posts on the topics of collaboration and opportunities beyond academia.
Part 1 of Jonny’s full interview with Jacob follows below, covering how the voluntary sector works, the ways in which they collaborate with researchers and the best and worst ways to approach a partnership. First, here are Jacob’s top tips for successful collaboration between academic and voluntary organisations:
1) A common misconception amongst academics is that the value of the voluntary sector is helping them to access communities. We’re not just a recruitment tool – there’s a lot more expertise within the voluntary sector that could be useful to researchers.
2) Before making a request to collaborate it’s valuable to learn about the diversity of the voluntary sector and the range of what is delivered.
3) There’s lots of value in collaboration, but that doesn’t always outweigh the downsides. If you are prepared to change and be flexible with the scope of your work because you recognize the value of collaboration is strong, then great. But if your offer is very specific, maybe for perfectly good reason, and there is something really particular you want to be looking at, it may not be the best idea to collaborate.
4) Don’t take it personally if you have to chase us or if we say no. We are often under strain and sometimes the offer won’t be right for us at that time.
5) Familiarise yourself with the system/structure of the organisation before making a request.
Jonny: From your experience, can you explain how the voluntary sector works?
Jacob: Yes, firstly there isn’t one thing the voluntary sector does or one way it works. Just as academia is incredibly diverse in terms of the research that is done, the way it’s structured, and the way different universities operate – the same is true within the voluntary sector. Thinking about the voluntary sector as a diverse sector, as opposed to a homogenous mass is really important.
Amongst academics, a common misconception is that the role of the voluntary sector is helping to access communities. But it’s not just a recruitment tool – there’s a lot more expertise within the voluntary sector that could be useful for researchers.
The other common misconception is that the voluntary sector is all about direct service delivery and filling gaps left by other services. That’s obviously a key part of what goes on, but the voluntary sector does a much broader range of things than that. Whether that’s in policy influencing, in service innovation, in public education, in service delivery, in fundraising for or conducting research, or in public and patient empowerment – there’s a really wide range of things.
Jonny: What is the worst type of request that you receive?
Jacob: A common case is a study that has been designed with no input from people with lived experience and/or the voluntary sector and all of the recruitment materials and methods are also designed and signed off by an ethics committee and the academics are reluctant to change anything. Usually, we then receive a leaflet and are asked “please can you send this out?”. These requests come without a lot of understanding or consideration for why it may be relevant or not, what the costs might be of doing that recruitment and how the findings will be relevant/useful.
Another common request we receive is a request to write a letter of support or sit on an advisory group for a grant application, usually with no opportunity to shape what that grant application looks like or a lot of clarity about what the advisory group’s role will be. That’s what I describe as ‘bid candy’ – you want to show that Mind’s name is attached to the grant but don’t actually want Mind to change/add anything.
I’d warn against using Mind’s involvement in an advisory group being seen as a substitute for Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) or involving people with lived experience directly. Yes, there are real values in having the involvement of a voluntary organisation in an advisory role, but it’s not a substitute to PPI – it’s something different.
Collaboration requests need to be thoughtful rather than automatically assuming that the proposed research is 1. inherently important and 2. any organisation involved in it, like a charity, should just be grateful for the chance to be involved as opposed to recognising that they are bringing value.
Jonny: Do you think maybe some academic institutes or people reaching out don’t know what the voluntary sector can add to their research?
Jacob: Yes – there’s a general sense that it would be beneficial, but they haven’t really thought about how those broader range of benefits could interact with their work or the opportunity. I think it’s the unintended negative consequence of some really positive trends like funders, grantmakers, and REF exercises prioritising social impact. There are now greater incentives to involve people outside of academia. However, the lack of confidence or understanding amongst academics, and also the limited way in which the quality of that social impact is assessed within REF and within grant applications, means that long as you can just say that there’s some involvement that’s a tick box as opposed to there being gradations of quality within that.
Jonny: Do Mind often collaborate with academic institutions?
Jacob It’s important to say that we are not necessarily typical of the whole voluntary sector. We are more typical of a large charity within the voluntary sector. There are three main types of collaboration:
1) Us (Mind) being a funder. In this sense Mind is probably less involved with academia than other charities of our size because our purpose is not Mental Health research, whereas charities like Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation, or MQ are research focused. But we still fund about 1 million pounds a year and work with about 20 different academic partners each year. Often, the power relationship is Mind funding others, on our terms, rather than a general open grant.
2) Where we are involved in advisory groups or we help to deliver someone else’s work, always on topics which are aligned to our own strategic priorities rather than just because they’re interesting and usually as a funded partner within a grant.
3) Where we’re involved in broader knowledge dissemination activities. Here we have more informal contact with academics who are sharing findings of interest with us or we’re involved in joint campaigns or lobbying exercises where it’s not necessarily us being involved in conducting the work, but in the life of that work after it’s been conducted – recognising that we are all part of the same ecosystem there.
Jonny: Is funding vital in a request?
Jacob: Research has to be incredibly salient for us to get involved without any funding, because the choice is if we do something without funding then we’re having to use donors’ money and we have to also make that money go a long way for lots of other things. You’ve almost got to think about that as a direct trade off – is the time we spend being involved for free of more value to people with mental health problems than doing direct service delivery?
It’s also important to say that just because something has funding doesn’t automatically mean we will be involved, because there is an opportunity cost as well as a financial cost. If we are paid to be involved in a study that is less relevant to our work, we then can’t work on something else which is more relevant – we have to meet both of those things.
Also, as well as the practical benefit of funding allowing us to dedicate precious resources to a project, there is also an impact on the power dynamics within a project. If you’re seen as part of a team who has an important role in the delivery of the project, then funding is a sign of respect and how seriously your contribution is being taken. I think that the same principle applies for involving people with lived experience – not just as study participants but as people involved in shaping the work – which is work of real value and should be paid and compensated accordingly.
Thanks for reading this far – watch out for our next blog covering the second half of this interview!