NPF TIG Week: Facilitating Academic Research Partnerships for An Inner-City Agency by Tracy Borrelli.

This AEA365 week is sponsored by the Nonprofit and Foundations (NPF) TIG. The posts are centered around the theme of “Equity focused evaluation in small nonprofits and foundations: Innovations, learnings, and challenges.”


Hi there! My name is Tracy Borrelli. I’m an evaluation consultant in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I currently specialize in homelessness. I have a background in Community Based Research & Evaluation (CBRE), both in academia and small NGOs, including a local, inner-city, community owned health centre (CHC).

Inner City Health Equity

Community owned and/or governed health centres are located around the world and are often created to address social barriers to basic health care for marginalized people. Barriers to health care in Edmonton’s inner city include issues like addictions, mental illness, homelessness, racism, sexual exploitation, ongoing trauma, complex health conditions, and more.

When I worked for a CHC in Edmonton, Alberta, we had roughly 54 multidisciplinary staff managing a combined case load of over 3000 vulnerable adults. There were no formal processes to screen or support external research projects at that time. Instead, a researcher could approach staff, who would facilitate the project. This sometimes led to helicopter research.

To get the full scope of what was happening, we formed a small committee of program managers to explore how the principles of CBRE might guide the way we handled research requests. Within the first few meetings, we learned that program staff and management had agreed to no less than 14 formal research projects, within 12 months. Borrowing from work done at Toronto’s Access Alliance Health Centre, we set out to build a new research screening process.

Lessons Learned

By year two of developing the new process, committee members were empowered to negotiate and filter new projects, increasing alignment with the unique needs of our patients and program staff. This led to more fulfilling partnerships with experienced faculty, and to temporarily restrict incoming research during a major change in operations at the program level.

Stronger Research Partnerships: 

Once they learned our preference for CBRE, research faculty usually shifted their approach to match our guidelines. They were more flexible with project timelines, making accommodations to get to know us, and adapting survey tools and recruitment procedures for patients that risked unnecessary re-traumatization. They sometimes adjusted their plans to make the project more accessible to clients (transportation costs). Researchers were also more likely to follow through with speaking to our staff about the study’s results, and to helping produce talking points for future advocacy towards policy change.

Student researchers’ behaviours didn’t change: 

Students continued to access the CHC for research related to their degree. We hoped to see more follow through with reporting back on their studies’ results. However, the new screening process (which included real time discussions, and signing an MOU) did not deter students from disappearing after they collected patients’ data.

Taking a sabbatical:  

At one point, we decided to give the CHC a sabbatical from research projects for 3 months. This provided some space during major operational changes, and reduced the potential for negative impacts on projects’ timelines and communications.

Hot Tip

Communicate early and often with researchers and student supervisors because a CBRE approach elongates project timelines. Know that some researchers may be quite surprised if you prefer CBRE, and have assumed you’ll quickly sign up, based on their written proposal and best intentions.

Rad Resources

Learn More About CBRE: If you are new to CBRE, this website gives you a practical overview of the nuts and bolts of what it is and why you would choose to go this route.

Community Based Research Toolkit by Access Alliance: This toolkit helps you shape a CBRE approach, including how to screen research requests. It contains forms and documents that helped us shape the process our committee created.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG). The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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