E2. Review the appropriateness of the proposed cooperation structures and resources

One can differentiate between two types of projects involving CSOs, those where CSOs play a transformative role for the knowledge production and others where this is not the case. For the latter types of projects an evaluator needs to check how and to what extent the involvement of CSOs relates to broader societal concerns (check recommendation E1). For first types of projects where CSOs have an important effect on the scientific outcomes the cooperation and communication structures should be adapted towards the expected contribution of the CSOs with regards to possible outcomes. This does not mean that the CSOs necessarily need to play an authoritative role but that it should be clear and transparent at the beginning of the project how their expectations are channelled to support solving the research problem – and to prevent disappointment which can cause serious problems or a premature end of the research activity.

The cooperation structures need to be based on appropriate funding and resourcing. The cooperation between CSOs and researchers creates extra costs when compared to normal research projects. Mutual expectations need to be adapted because whereas researchers relate their activities to theoretically relevant problems, CSOs need to draw practical consequences. It has proved to be true that the problem-definition process between CSOs and researchers takes longer than in a typical project (often double of the normal time). This means an evaluator reviewing a research proposal should examine if the interests of both sides are considered in an understandable way and that the project will stay on track because its governance structure provides enough mechanisms of communication and maybe even problem and milestone adaption.

Guiding Questions

Evaluators and reviewers could ask:
  • Is the CSOs' role in the project described in a way that is clear and unambiguous?
  • Are the cooperation structures conducive to the researchers' and CSOs' aims and objectives?
  • Where CSOs are meant to have a transformative role, will the project allow them to fulfil this?
  • Are there sufficient resources available to support the cooperation between CSOs and other project partners?

Example: A complex community-based environmental project

We conducted research on a community-based research project where several CSOs and local communities were involved. The project aimed to determining the dangers and consequences of an industrially caused environmental disaster for the members of the local communities. The project was sponsored in a funding stream that made the participation of CSOs and communities as a success criterion of the proposal. The process of setting up the proposal was initiated by the communities and CSOs. They had a vital interest in the research results and it took the consortium (consisting of 5 research partners, 2 communities, and 5 CSOs) one and a half years from the first idea to finalising the proposal.

The project structure included two individuals who are mostly employed for caring for the problems of the communities and CSOs on the one hand as well the problems and conflicts of the researcher on the other hand. They talked to responsible people each week. The leading research partners and the leading community/CSO partners had telephone conferences on a monthly basis, organized trips to visit each other on a regular basis (at least once every three months). Further, a board of decision makers consisting of CSO representatives and researchers was established which was responsible for urgent decisions or for developing action strategies for existing conflicts. The sponsor set up a commission where CSOs, communities and researchers sent representatives. This commission was supposed to monitor and supervise the projects funded within the same stream. And of course, all these activities were costly and expensive but had been reflected in the research proposal.

The coordinator of the project made it clear that the project structure contained several different evaluation and feedback mechanisms to ensure the project stays on track and receives support from all involved:

'We evaluate our project in several forms. One is by virtue of our frequent interactions both amongst ourselves and with our community partners, constantly reminding us of where we are in the equation, how things are progressing. In addition to that, we are expected to provide annual evaluations to [the funders]. And they actually have the authority to make changes to our program if they deem them required. Our consortium has an external advisory board made up of experts in both community based participatory research and our relevant sciences, who can look at us on an annual basis as a functioning entity to determine whether we are meeting the objectives of the project. And then, I think, we get through these semi-annual committee interactions with our partners a more formal evaluation based on what we are able to report. So I think there are levels of scrutiny that collectively provide the necessary oversight and checks and balances making this project stay on track'. (Project Coordinator)