A few months ago, I was talking with my son’s teacher about a professional conference she had just attended. Fascinated with metacognition, she spoke with excitement about the workshops she attended, and how much she had learned at the intersection of brain research and pedagogy. But she noted that she was among the minority of teachers who were fortunate to have access to such information. “There’s so much research out there about how kids learn, it’s a shame there’s such a gap between the knowledge that exists and what teachers often practice in the classroom,” she said.
Some might argue—as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff did—that academics themselves are somewhat to blame for the existence of this gap, that researchers have marginalized themselves through a “culture of exclusivity.” Some within academia have outlined specific steps needed to shift that culture, and make innovations, data, and ideas more accessible to the public.
Unfortunately, that culture shift will likely be slow to arrive. In the meantime, nonprofits and philanthropies are among those whose everyday practices rarely intersect with research and data. Often operating with limited staff and lean budgets, the nonprofit sector isn’t always able to access current knowledge and best practices—not for lack of interest, but rather, for lack of bandwidth.
But if the nonprofit sector seeks to truly impact communities—and, in the end, that’s why we’re part of this work, isn’t it?—then we have to take a step back to question whether what we currently know and do are really the end of the story. Could the programs we embraced 20 years ago still be the most effective way of combatting complex social problems, or could new studies show us more promising approaches? Are the anecdotes we’ve collected from our agency enough to satisfy us that we are doing our best to serve our clients, or could we benefit from the collective learning that has been captured by other organizations across the country or the world?
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program—or DARE—is a poster child for applying research to improve impact. Despite being the most popular youth substance abuse prevention program in the country, nearly a decade of research found that the program, simply put, wasn’t effective. In 2009, however, in partnership with prevention specialists and researchers, the DARE curriculum was overhauled to shift from an anti-drug to a decision-making focus. Early studies indicate the new curriculum, dubbed “keepin’ it REAL,” has reduced substance abuse and maintained its effectiveness over time, in stark contrast to its predecessor. Embracing science-based improvements has proved to be a turning point for the program, evidenced by meaningful and lasting outcomes.
Often in our sector, we fear evaluation, data, and research because they seem to reduce or de-humanize the very personal nature of our work. Make no mistake—an important place exists for stories. But likewise, an important place exists for data, too. Data’s strength is in its ability to test and gather evidence that community change is occurring, that the stories of individual lives impacted are not simply feel-good anecdotes but rather are indications of real and intentionally orchestrated change. I can think of few better ways to benefit our communities than by working to ensure the programs and services we provide are truly effective. And bridging the gap between knowledge and practice is a powerful first step in making that happen.
How have you seen data or research improve programs in your community? What concrete steps has your organization taken to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice?