CRI Taking A Different Approach To Research

May 8, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Involving the community — including the business sector — will be an essential factor in how successful the new Community Research Institute will be if it hopes to fill the area’s data void after it opens this spring.

That’s because the CRI approach to data gathering is similar to a method started by the social science departments at Chicago-based universities and one vigorously endorsed by the Loka Institute. Community-based research is what it is most often called, while others may refer to it as action-based research.

Whatever the name, its key data-gathering element remains the same — using frontliners, like community and business organizations, in the process. This is the method of choice if the CRI hopes to provide valid and never-before-gathered information on tough issues such as poverty, racism, access to healthcare, family stability and other matters that comprise an area’s quality of life index.

“Traditionally, research has been done on communities, not with them. Research is generally seen as an elite process,” said Jill Chopyak, executive director of the Loka Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to making science and technology more accessible.

“A study of community-based research in the United States conducted by the Loka Institute concluded that this type of social change research differs fundamentally from most other academic research in that it is immediately usable, practical and empowering for the community,” added Donna VanIwaarden, director of the CRI and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center of Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

VanIwaarden said that community-based research is research that has been requested by the community.

“It’s not different from typical research in that it will use the same good, scientific method. However, the data that we collect and the purposes that it will be used for are really set by the community,” she said. “The kinds of things that community organizations need to enhance their work.

“To some degree, it will be a little bit like the market research that business uses,” she added. “And this is going to be the research that nonprofit organizations can use.”

VanIwaarden said the CRI was currently building its secondary-data library, which will be available at its Web site. Information from Kids Count has been posted, and data on women in the workplace was coming.

“This institute will be one-stop shopping for data about our community,” she said.

GVSU and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation partnered in the CRI last month, which is located in the Johnson Center. The two organizations hope the institute fills the local hole in primary-data research.

“Finally, we’ll be able, I hope, to provide some hard data. Or admit that there isn’t hard data, and try to do survey research around particular areas that seem to be so elusive to us,” said GRCF President Diana Sieger.

“And if we have more consistent data and accessible data, we can all be on the same page about what is already out there, what is happening and what is the information telling us,” she added, “so that all aspects of the community can be involved.”

GRCF has committed $250,000 to cover the institute’s start-up. Sieger told the Business Journal that the foundation may also commit another $500,000 to the CRI over the next two years, bringing GRCF’s total financial support for the institute to $750,000.

Although the CRI doors won’t officially open for a few more months, Sieger said its research efforts actually began a few years ago. The CRI was the data source for the Delta Strategy, the community report card that was issued last October.

“I think that businesses would probably be much more satisfied with their corporate giving if they had the right type of information to measure their success. That’s where the Community Research Institute can, perhaps, play a key role in that,” said Sieger.

“None of us knows, and I think that is what people are getting tired of. It’s not that anybody is doing a bad job,” she added about wondering whether grants were working. “But I do think that there is a real strong link here to business that will become more obvious as time goes on.”

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