Research Friday: BIGGER! BETTER! FASTER! CHEAPER!
Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.
A popular television and print marketing promotion in the 1970’s showcased the “Shell Answer Man,” an all-knowing expert on automotive issues. There seemingly was no end to what the “Man” could answer, based upon research and reason, and it was quite beside the point that Shell is an oil company seeking customers.
In guiding our ASU Lodestar Center, I reflect on this type of marketing because of the inquiries we receive each week for research-based answers to every sort of question imaginable. Like the Shell Answer Man, we respond to dozens of inquiries each month on wide-ranging questions.
Though we do our best to respond to requests, unlike the Shell Answer Man, we are not fueled by the research and marketing budget of a global oil company. Unfortunately, there is little interest on the part of most funders to invest in high quality, methodologically sound research on leadership and philanthropy topics that are so very important to those who lead, manage, and support nonprofits.
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As a knowledge enterprise, our Center finds the wherewithal to regularly produce a few core research products in our Giving and Volunteering Study, our Arizona Scope of the Nonprofit Sector, and our Nonprofit Compensation and Benefits Study, along with our work on Models of Collaboration. We are committed to these research products because of their high demand and utility toward an understanding of nonprofits and philanthropy in Arizona and beyond.
The challenge arises when stakeholders come to us for customized research. These requests require a high level of expertise, time, and output, and they often come with unreasonable expectations about costs, complexity of design, and other essential ingredients to successful inquiry and deliverables.
Our Center’s work with the AIM Alliance, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, was designed around the fusion of three outstanding nonprofit academic centers. Of the several goals for the Alliance, involving ASU’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University (Michigan), was the matter of using joint research protocols in studying selected topics in philanthropy.
During an AIM Alliance meeting, I expressed frustration about those who want great research results with accompanying unreasonable expectations regarding time, cost, and quality. The executive director of the IU Center and a colleague in the world of nonprofit and philanthropy research, Dr. Patrick Rooney nailed the issue by describing his experience with what many stakeholders want from university research centers. He notes four parameters: Bigger! Better! Faster! Cheaper! Given these, Dr. Rooney's response that follows is that he can give them three of the four variables, and they can choose which of the factors they want! If they want the first three (bigger, better, faster), then they cannot have cheaper. Conversely, if they want cheaper, they cannot have bigger, better, and faster.
What is the downside to lack of adequate funding for high quality research in our field? There are many. Just one is that small-scale studies are funded, often to advance a particular point of view, conducted by organizations who produce beautiful reports from data based upon flawed methodologies. We are seeing more research reports based on convenience samples (i.e., a survey monkey sent out to e-mail contacts), which is then touted as portraying some universal understanding of the nonprofit sector. Such sampling may not be representative of the sector and may under-represent, over-represent or not represent at all the reality of the issue under study. Yet, these “quick and dirty” studies are blasted out through social media channels, often attract media attention, and occasionally become highly touted. These studies are certainly not bigger or better, but they are cheaper and faster!
A famous case of flawed methodology leading to faulty conclusions involves the United States presidential election of 1936 pitting Franklin D. Roosevelt against Alf Landon. A study conducted by The Literary Digest predicted that Landon would be the winner with 370 electoral votes. In fact, Roosevelt won by a landslide, carrying all but eight electoral votes and every state but Maine and Vermont. Roosevelt also won the popular vote by a large margin. What was the reason for such an error by a publication that had successfully predicted the prior five elections? They relied on voluntary responses to a survey — from a convenience sample of their own subscribers, the results of which were grossly erroneous. The magazine’s credibility suffered, and it became extinct within months after the election.
I wonder what the Shell Answer Man would say when asked to produce research that is BIGGER! BETTER! CHEAPER! FASTER!?
Dr. Ashcraft is the executive director of the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University, and he is associate professor of nonprofit studies in ASU's School of Community Resources and Development, located at the downtown Phoenix campus.