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How to work with non-governmental organisations

I attended a symposium for scientists and non-governmental organisations at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland recently.

The aim of the symposium was to promote more collaboration between NGOs and conservation scientists. Here are some of the key lessons I took home.

One researcher told me she wish she’d had such a symposium when she started her PhD. It would have given her the know-how needed to reach out to NGOs and start collaborating as part of her PhD.

So here are the key lessons.

  1. Look up NGOs in your area and read about their science priorities. Many, like Birdlife Australia (who presented at there) publish their science priorities.

  2. Get in touch with NGO staff. If you know someone who knows someone at an NGO that is great. Start by asking your supervisor. If not, try just emailing the contact on the NGOs webpage and say you are a scientist looking to align your research for more impact.

  3. Ask what their science needs are. If you can get a meeting with the NGO staff, great. But don’t waste your meeting pitching your ideas to them. Listen first. Find out what their problems and issues are. They probably have science needs outlined already. For instance, the presenter from The Wilderness Society pitched several ideas they’d love to have science on for their advocacy work. These included analyses of national threats to Australian fauna and attribution of extinction risk to specific industries.

  4. Align your science with their priorities. The next step would be to come up with a research plan. Make sure it aligns with their priorities. If you can get time with the NGO, pitch the plan back to them (its ok to pitch now that you’ve listened to what their needs are). If you can’t, you may still like to go ahead and do the research in the hope they pick it up later. For instance, Birdlife Aus has aligned their science awards to their priorities.

  5. Be mindful of timelines. NGO timelines are often fast moving. Their priorities can shift rapidly as funding or politics change. This can be a challenge for research projects.

For PhD students I wouldn’t recommend projects that have strict deliverables to a deadline. For instance, they may need to deliver results in a timely manner to be able to influence major new government policies. Or they may be looking to contract someone to prepare a report. PhDs need time to learn and this often takes longer than NGO timelines.

That being said, NGOs often have many research ideas they’d like to do, but which their work isn’t directly dependent on. These kinds of projects can be great for students. Just be mindful that if the research drags on too long (like years) the NGO may shift their priorities and you’ll lose engagement.

So aim for projects that need 6 months to a year to complete. Talk to your supervisor about projecting time needed, as we all tend to underestimate that.

  1. NGOs are often under-resourced. Which means they probably won’t have bucket loads of funding for your project, but they do love help where they can get it. If you are a PhD student with time and capacity to share, then they’ll probably love that. So don’t be shy about reaching out.

Just be sure to plan your engagement with NGOs with a mentor or supervisor. You want to make sure you align the project with your skillset and feasible timelines for providing results.

Working with NGOs has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career. As an academic (and as a student) I have the luxury of getting to spend some of my time on passion projects. Sometimes the ‘work for free’ has then lead onto funded work.

The research I’ve done with NGOs has often lead to real world impact. These stories have become a core part of my career story that has built my reputation, and which I also look back on as the most rewarding experiences of my career.

Contact: Chris Brown

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