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3 Ways to Make Your Research Useful

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: 3 Ways to Make Your Research Useful

The foundation executive sighed as she thumbed through yet another 150-page evaluation report that her organization had commissioned. She knew that the report contained useful information—somewhere—both for her foundation and the broader non-profit field. But realistically, no one else would likely read the long report.

“Unless I can deliver an evaluation report that people will read, I haven’t finished my evaluation role,” she said.  “I’m sitting on so much information. I need to get something short and snappy to people.”

This foundation official has the right idea.

People are busy and most are overwhelmed with the information demands on them. If foundations and nonprofits want people to benefit from the important--and often expensive-- research and evaluation that they’ve invested in, it’s critical to make that information as useful and easy to access as possible.

I recently read an incredibly helpful report, Marketing Your Knowledge, which was commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and prepared by the Williams Group. The report focuses on an effort to help ten organizations share what they know and make a greater impact.

The report points out that people in the non-profit field need to change their mindset about distributing their research. Instead of asking, “What do we have to say?” organizations should ask, ”What knowledge do users need?”

The following examples illustrate three ways in which I’ve observed the leading foundations and non-profit organizations think about—and answer—the question, “What do users need?” They:

1. Provide Easy-to-Read Summaries. Some foundations, like my client described above, are committed to making the research they commission accessible and easy to digest. The Wallace Foundation is another foundation at the forefront of this trend. They produce a two-page Knowledge in Brief summary of their most compelling research and evaluation. Wallace staff and others condense long, often jargon-filled reports into clear briefs. The briefs provide relevant information for audiences that can most use the findings.

The foundation recently asked me to boil down a 75-page report on management information systems (MIS) for after-school learning programs to a summary in clear and simple language.  Pam Mendels, Wallace’s gifted editor, said that the foundation wanted to reach people who work in city government and who are interested in after-school and summer learning programs but may not know why management information systems are important for these programs.

Mendels encouraged me to write in a chatty and conversational way. In contrast to the formal, often stilted way of writing in the non-profit world, Mendels threw out those rules and essentially said, “Let’s just talk to these city staff and tell them how these management information systems can make their lives easier.”

By looking for ways to make the research interesting and even fun to read about, Mendels and the Wallace Foundation go a long way in getting key audiences to pay attention to its information.

You can see the Knowledge in Brief on the after-school learning program here.

2. Synthesize Information. One of the most frustrating aspects of information overload is trying to make sense of it all. So much research exists on any topic that a key need for many users is to answer the question, “What does it all mean?”

One way that foundations and non-profits can be useful is by synthesizing research or findings on a topic. For instance, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) produces short reports that synthesize research findings on perennial health policy questions. The reports cover topics such as the cost effectiveness of preventive care and the driving forces behind health costs.

These brief reports save readers countless hours they might spend wading through long research papers to determine the expert consensus on critical topics.

You can find examples of RWJF’s synthesis reports here.

3. Create a Top Ten List. Many nonprofits want to position themselves as the go-to place for information on a particular topic or field. They can highlight their expertise--and save their audience a lot of time on research--by bringing together resources in a top ten list.

For example, IssueLab, which archives, distributes and promotes research produced in the non-profit sector, believes in the power of sharing knowledge. One way that we all share knowledge in our field is through lessons learned reports.

IssueLab recently posted a list of its nominations for 2010’s top lessons learned reports.  By doing so, it provided a helpful listing in one place for anyone looking for examples on how to do these reports. IssueLab also further established its niche as an organization that aggregates information on useful research.

The next time you have research you believe that your audience needs, think about creative ways to make that information as easy as possible for them to use.


We specialize in writing case studies, lessons learned reports and issue briefs as well as creating web content. If you have a project that you think might be a good fit, please contact us to discuss how we might collaborate. You can reach us at or (802) 748-3070


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(c) 2011 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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