Research Questions I Wish Someone Would Answer

question markEvery once in a while I ask folks on the listserv for ARNOVA ( Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) if they know whether research has been done about this topic or that.

Lately the responses I receive are simultaneously disappointing and intriguing.
First, no one finds research to address my question, and
Second, I get a slew of off-list emails from folks, asking, “If you get an answer, please let me know – this is of intense interest to my own work as well.”

So I thought I would share some of my questions here. Perhaps someone will read this and point me to research that does indeed exist to answer my questions. Or perhaps someone will say, “That’s a great idea! I’m taking that up for my thesis!”

Or perhaps we can just gather a huge ongoing repository of questions we wish someone would research and answer, if for no other reason than to just get it out of our systems!

So herewith, my top few. Please add your own!

Frequently a board or a funder will request an outside assessment of an organization’s systems. The assumption is that the organization will then take the assessment to heart and make recommended changes.

Research Questions: Do organizations who receive such assessments actually change / become more effective as a result of the assessment? In what percentage of cases is an outside assessment really used as a management tool for improvement? Three years after the assessment has been done, is change noticeable?

The drumbeat for mergers in the community benefit world seems to get louder every year, in good times and bad times, despite proof in the for-profit world that the majority of mergers fall apart in the short term AND the long term. Regardless of whether mergers last in the community benefit world, and regardless of whether or not mergers provide for increased efficiency, those are not my questions. My questions have to do with the only thing that matters – what difference does it make to the community?

Research Questions: What percentage of mergers among community benefit organizations result in increased community impact? Is it more mission effective to have a greater number of organizations with the same mission or fewer?

Capacity Building
“If only organizations all had capacity building interventions, they would all run more smoothly and create more impact! Foundations should be funding more capacity building!” If you have not heard this lament, then you haven’t been in this sector for long.

Research Question #1: What percentage of organizations who receive capacity building intervention actually change their behaviors / increase their effectiveness for the long term? How many revert back to the same problems for which they needed capacity building? After 2 years? After 5 years? What is the staying power of capacity building assistance?

Research Question #2: When an organization receives capacity building intervention, is there any measurable difference in the impact that organization has in the community? What percentage of organizations who receive capacity building assistance are making a more marked improvement in their communities’ quality of life?

If the research has already been done to address these questions, would someone share the findings here? And if the research has not been done, would someone please pass this along to a PhD review committee and see if they might suggest it?

Those are just a few of my questions. What questions about this sector’s work do you wish someone would research and have answers for?

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4 Responses to Research Questions I Wish Someone Would Answer

  1. Hildy, you keep, rightly, asking about community impact but most assessments look at internal efficiencies or changes not outcomes. I do watch your attempts to get useful info from ARNOVA, and I hope you’ll keep trying; there have to be some readers who are rethinking some of their research plans when they realize they can’t answer the questions that matter most. It might be two years before your questions can be answered, but that’s better than never.

    The main proponent of nonprofit mergers in my community defines success solely from the bottom line. She also tells organizations to drop the program most important to their community, even if no one else provides it, if it is a drain on resources. TA DA- success! Yeah, right. And I’ve watched major organizations in Canada lie about why they are merging so any outcomes they might choose to assess would be a sham.

  2. Hi Hildy!

    Thank you for putting these questions out there (and on Twitter) and for inviting responses. Nothing more frustrating than having a hunch that the answer MIGHT be out there, somewhere!

    When I saw your Mergers question, I thought about a report we have in IssueLab that might answer (or get closer to) some of the answers you’re seeking. It’s called “Nonprofit Mergers: An Assessment of Nonprofits’ Experiences with the Merger Process” and was submitted by the Forbes Funds (2007). Access:

    If you’ve got a minute, you might discover more answers by browsing through our “Nonprofits & Philanthropy” issue area ( Or just do an advanced search. Happy finding!

    at IssueLab

  3. I received this note from a reader who asked that I post it for her.

    “Don’t know if it would be relevant in the States but some of those questions have been answered in the UK in research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation , NCVO and the Big Lottery.”
    Margaret Underwood
    Third Sector Development & Training

  4. On capacity building, see:

    Building Capacity While Assessing It Three Foundations’ Experiences Using the McKinsey Capacity Assessment Grid, March 2005, By:Kendall Guthrie and Alan Preston, Blueprint Research & Design, Inc.

    The Capacity Building Challenge, by Paul C. Light and Elizabeth T. Hubbard, April 2002


    A View from the Field: Helping Community Organizations Meet
    Capacity Challenges, by Lucy N. Friedman, The After-School Corporation
    March 2008

    The first document comes closest to answering your research question 1…and Light’s article does a great job of laying out the problems. Venture Philanthropy Partners, Inc. enlisted McKinsey to design their capacity building matrix in 2001, VPP might be a source to tap to gauge impact of capacity building.