Partnering with organizations in an international context: lessons from NGO workers in East Africa

A photo of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, which one of the authors took while leaving an NGO office. Courtesy of Colette Salemi/Colette Salemi

The Human Rights Lab at the University of Minnesota encourages collaboration between academic researchers and the organizations that support beneficiaries. Such collaborative efforts can enrich scholarship by bridging theoretical, academic thought with practical on-the-ground experience. But not all organizations are able or even interested in partnering. What organizations are best for researchers to approach? What factors facilitate collaboration, and what factors serve as barriers?

Our Lab-sponsored fieldwork suggests that many NGOs value a collaborative research partnership only under specific circumstances and often on a sub-contractual basis. We did find, however, that there were organizations that were enthusiastic about working together with outside researchers. For researchers looking for an organization that can provide contacts and legitimacy in exchange for the researcher’s labor, a small, local NGO could serve as a meaningful partner. If a researcher is looking to collaborate with members of an organization on a topic of mutual importance, we recommend contacting local and international NGOs with a research mandate. 

Our research also highlighted the importance of thinking carefully about the costs that organizations incur from collaborating with researchers. Since time allocated to a joint research initiative means allocating less time towards an organization’s programming, is some form of compensation —pro bono labor, cash, etc.— necessary to ensure that such partnerships are equitable? And are there potential reputational costs for an organization in the event that a researcher later publishes content critical of that organization or their work? In contexts of weak legal institutions where written contracts may provide no solid guarantees, researchers need to deliberately cultivate trust and find ways to ensure that organizations feel protected against such risks. 

Our research

In early 2019, we applied for a student-faculty led Human Rights Lab grant to support our ongoing work on forced displacement. Our project focused on how government and nonprofit stakeholders identify land for refugee camps and how this land allocation influences refugee access to markets and services. But we were unable to identify a partner organization to collaborate with, so we were not able to fully apply the Minnesota Model in our study of refugee camps and land use. Consequently, we worked with collective faculty inputs and advice within the Lab to extend our project to enable meaningful field engagement and learning. While conducting Lab-sponsored fieldwork in the summer of 2019, Colette also connected with NGOs to learn about when partnerships are most beneficial for them.

Colette interviewed 10 key informants working for both local, regional, and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania. In these interviews, we discussed the collaborations the organizations had pursued and what made these collaborations meaningful. Below, we share our main findings.

Successful academic-organizational partnerships are often longstanding

In many cases, the NGOs we encountered had long-term relationships with universities that they regularly partnered with for research. For example, one INGO in Kigali has a strong partnership with the University of Rwanda. It frequently partners with their PhD students in fields such as Public Health, Economics, and Education for program evaluations. In Uganda, many of the INGOs partner regularly with departments at Makarere University in Kampala. Interviewees from a Christian INGO in Uganda reported about their partnerships with Christian universities of the same denomination in the United States. In these examples, the partnerships are anchored by a shared characteristic, for example, a shared religious or national identity between researchers and organizations. 

For INGOs, longstanding partnerships may also be determined by choices made at their headquarters. For example, one Rwanda-based INGO office has a European headquarters, which holds a longstanding relationship with a nearby European university. Through this relationship, the INGO headquarters sends graduate students to their Rwandan office to conduct research. In the event that researchers want to build international ties with organizations, this example highlights the importance of shared geography between researchers and  the organization’s offices.

When was a new partnership appealing?

Some key informants were highly receptive to the idea of partnerships with researchers. What made partnerships appealing to these organizations? 

1. Small organizations may be willing to exchange contacts and local legitimacy for volunteer hours: For example, one local NGO in Kenya had a Ph.D. student “intern” when Colette visited. In exchange for beneficiary contacts, they asked the graduate student to volunteer hours towards their operations. An NGO in Tanzania also said they would be happy to support the work of a researcher in exchange for volunteer work. These modalities of partnership still differ from the Minnesota Model, as they constitute resource transfers as opposed to collaborative efforts. But perhaps this exchange yields a net benefit to organizations with limited resources.

2. Organizations with a research mandate: Most NGOs we spoke with focus on servicing beneficiaries. However, one research-oriented regional NGO in Uganda was clearly open to partnerships. Research organizations such as this one value policy-oriented work, an objective many academic researchers can help support. Unlike other NGOs that have an emergency or development assistance mandate, a research NGO’s mandate more closely aligns with the objectives of an academic researcher. The value of partnering may be more apparent for this reason.

3. Organizations protected against risks: A regional NGO in Uganda expressed its interest in collaborating with both academic researchers and private sector experts. Its staff saw tremendous benefits from collaborative efforts that  draw on the respective expertise of this triad of partners. They did so despite perceived risks that researchers might publish findings that damage the organization’s reputation with donors. Decisive factors were the general openness of this organization’s director and its strong ties with a UN entity that served as its primary source of funding. Secure funding provides NGOs with security against risks and allows them to take creative approaches to improve their operations. 

Some organizations only associate partnerships with sub-contracting

For many of the key informants, especially those from INGOs, academic partnerships only have value if they contribute directly to facilitating or strengthening the organization’s current programming. When asked to discuss past academic partnerships that were successful, many representatives immediately pointed to a partnership where a research consultancy or university-affiliated team conducted a needs assessment or a program evaluation. This understanding of partnership differs from the Minnesota Model, as it resembles outsourcing more than collaboration. 

Lessons for the Minnesota Model - Building trust with organizations

Because partnerships may be perceived as risky for organizations, trust building is absolutely crucial.  Academic institutions must be intentional about designing collaborative projects and fostering institutional  knowledge on how to find and keep partners. Trust will grow based on the group’s reputation as being trustworthy and transparent. 

Another strategy for building trust is ensuring that researchers cultivate longer-term relationships with relevant organizations that have local headquarters. As noted, shared geography between the research teams and one of the organization’s offices seems to support such a partnership. Longer-standing relationships yield more interactions over time, resulting in greater trust and confidence between partners. Moreover, such formal relationship-building can potentially facilitate the incorporation of researcher objectives into the longer-term planning of organizations.


This article is part of a partnership with the University of Minnesota Human Rights Lab. The series explores the possibilities and barriers to building effective research and practice collaborations between academics and practitioners of human rights.