Commitment issues: Part 2

25 January 2017

Effective knowledge translation (KT) is achieved only when there is strong engagement between researchers and research users. However, forging these relationships can be challenging.

Following Chris McBride’s blog ‘How to get my organization to say yes to an integrated KT project’, Dr. Heather Gainforth shares the researcher’s perspective on how to ensure these collaborations are successful.

Visit the KT Encounters section of our website for videos of KT experts and practitioners discussing the challenges facing the practice of KT, and how these might be overcome.

Commitment issues: How to foster long-term collaborations with community organizations – a researcher’s perspective


As an integrated knowledge translation (iKT) researcher, I am often asked how I foster long-term and meaningful partnerships with community organizations. iKT is an approach to research that engages research users as equal partners alongside researchers throughout the entire research process, resulting in research that is applicable, useful and translatable to end users. iKT is increasingly being considered a gold-standard approach to ensuring research is used in practice. So it is not surprising that researchers are being encouraged by granting agencies to establish iKT partnerships with community organizations.

“Integrated knowledge translation is an approach to research that engages research users as equal partners alongside researchers throughout the entire research process.”

However, establishing an iKT partnership with community organizations is often easier said than done. In ‘Part 1’ of this two-part blog post, one of my most trusted community partners, Dr. Chris McBride, outlined ‘commitment issues’ that Spinal Cord Injury BC faces when deciding whether to commit to an iKT project. As researchers, we also face several ‘commitment issues’ that may dissuade us from using an iKT approach. In particular, we often think we lack the time, guidance, skill and knowledge to successfully partner and foster long-term relationships with organizations.

With all the effort required to foster these partnerships, it is not surprising that researchers may also question whether an iKT partnership is really worth the effort. In my experience, it is.

As an iKT researcher working in the fields of health promotion and spinal cord injury (SCI), I have had the opportunity to foster partnerships with several organizations that support people with SCI. Since arriving at UBC Okanagan in 2015, SCI BC has been one of my closest partners. Together, we have submitted and received several grants and conducted meaningful research that aims to enhance the lives of people with SCI.

So what are the secrets to fostering long-term relationships with community organizations? This blog post aims to provide some insight into two questions I’m often asked by researchers: 1) How do we do it? and 2) Is it really worth it?

How do we do it?

In Commitment issues: Part 1, Chris outlined several tips for fostering relationships with his organization (arrive early and get to know me and my organization; listen carefully; speak the same language; be relevant; bring value; and be respectful). When approaching and working with community organizations, I follow several principles that allow me to make a good first and lasting impression:

  1. Start by asking ‘How can I help?’ – As Chris stated, researchers often approach community organizations after they have determined their research question, established methods, and received ethics approval. To foster an equal partnership, I approach community organizations without a pre-determined agenda. I do this well before I plan to write a grant or begin a project. I spend time getting to know the organization and start by asking the question, ‘How can I help?’. By getting to know the organization, I can understand their values and goals as well as establish a common language. From here, the organization and I can co-develop a research question and program that is valuable, relevant and translatable to their organization.
  2. Foster an equal partnership – As researchers, we are often considered experts, especially when it comes to the scientific process. But expertise comes from many different experiences and isn’t always denoted by the letters Ph.D. on a business card. To work in equal partnership with my community partners, I value their opinions, needs and time as equal to my own. This means that I aim to ensure partners are compensated for their time and effort. It also means that I am willing to contribute to work within their organization that may not directly relate to my research. For example, I have given talks, analyzed data, evaluated programs and authored reports that help the organization and do not directly relate to an ongoing grant or project.

    I work with my partners to ensure that everyone on the team, whether they are a researcher or community partner, has ownership, authorship and a leadership role within our projects. Of note, an equal partnership does not mean that we all contribute equally to all tasks. For example, community partners may lead recruitment while researchers may lead statistical analyses. However, at all points in the research process, everyone on the team is consulted to determine how they want to be included.

  3. Be compassionate – It is important to always respect and have the interests of your community partners at heart. If you apply principles one and two without compassion you may end up acting more like a car salesman than a good partner. By keeping the interests of the organization in mind, I ensure that I don’t push, persuade or coerce organizations into partnerships, research projects or roles that are not truly beneficial to them. Rather, I only join partnerships when they are of benefit to both my research and the community organization.
  4. Be in it for the long-term – Rather than associating my partnerships with a particular project or grant, I think of my partnerships as the foundation of my research program. None of the research we conduct would be possible if I had only been looking for short-term solutions to a grant application or recruitment challenge. I aim to foster partnerships that last well beyond any grant cycle. I view my community partners as colleagues who I want to collaborate with over the course of my career. We take the time to get to know each other as people, celebrate our successes and support each other when the going gets tough. By fostering long-term relationships, we establish strong collegial bonds that will continue to lead to new and exciting research for years to come.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. 100%. Yes.

Working to establish and maintain partnerships with SCI community organizations is time consuming. During the initial stages of establishing a partnership, I can spend between five and twenty hours a week fostering relationships and co-defining priorities and goals. While writing an iKT grant, this time commitment increases. However, once our partnership is established the benefits far outweigh the costs.

By working with community partners like SCI BC, we have partnered to conduct research that is meaningful to the SCI population. By co-designing our recruitment strategies, we have been able to more than halve the time needed to recruit participants. Together, we analyze our data and community organizations provide interpretations and insights that may have taken years for our research team to identify independently. And when it comes to end-of-grant KT, community organizations use their networks and expertise within the SCI community to ensure that we use the best methods to reach a wide gamut of end users.

As with relationships in our personal and professional lives, investing time and energy in building a positive connection early on will increase the likelihood of both parties committing to what can become a rewarding and mutually beneficial long-term partnership. In doing so, we ensure that we conduct and disseminate research that is important to and impacts people living in the real world. And if real world impact is not worth it, I don’t know what is.

Read: Commitment issues part 1, Chris McBride

Watch: KT Encounters video series

Dr. Heather L. Gainforth
Assistant Professor, School of Health and Exercise Sciences, University of British Columbia, Kelowna, BC

Dr. Heather Gainforth’s research aims to close the gap between health behaviour-change research and practice by examining knowledge translation – the act of moving research evidence into the hands of research users. Her Applied Behaviour Change lab at UBC Okanagan aims to understand how evidence-based behaviour-change research is applied in the real world in order to identify, develop and implement interventions to change a variety of behaviours (e.g. physical activity and smoking cessation) in the general and spinal cord injury populations. Her research is guided by strong collaborations between researchers and communities.

Dr. Gainforth conducted her MSc and PhD at Queen’s University, Ontario, under the supervision of Dr. Amy Latimer-Cheung. Her academic training in health promotion, knowledge translation and kinesiology has fostered her belief that evidence-based health promotion interventions and guidelines must be widely disseminated both in general and special populations.

Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.