September 5, 2007

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Well, yes, we have over 100 Doctors, all with PhDs that is, here at the Researching the Voluntary Sector conference.

At first I was intimidated by all these PhDs presenting their research papers. That feeling was reinforced by the snooty-patooty facilitator of the first break out session who quickly put me in my place by snorting at my question and then saying I couldn't ask another. I instantly blushed, making the verbal slap even more painful.

You see, I didn't "get" the presentation format. Of course IF it had been explained at the start of the conference I would have understood. The researchers present their papers, you ask clarifying questions after each presentation and then at the end you discuss (attack?) the sum of their information. If you are very clever you make links between the three or four papers when you ask a question. The audience are all PhDs too, except for the few mystery folks such as myself.

What's been insightful for me, besides the fact that I will always be recognised as an American first and an individual second, is that these PhDs gather data and crunch numbers. Ask them anything outside of this info, such as drawing conclusions about influences, emotions, concerns of their research subjects and they get all confused. For instance, one team conducted focus groups with donors. "We observed that people were uncomfortable in the focus groups." Okay - why? "Because they don't like to talk about money?" That was as far as they took it. How is that conclusion helpful to a charity trying to use the research findings? So I said, "Is it perhaps that giving is very personal and is influenced by issues that are important in their lives. Talking about these charities could reveal things that they do not want to share in a group." The snooty-patooty facilitator said, "No! It is because they don't want to talk about money." In other words, "You don't understand our culture so bugger off."

But last night, having reluctantly decided to attend the awards dinner (not even sure what the award was about) I sat next to fantastic people who could talk openly and honestly about ideas, despite being PhDs. I repeated the story and they said, "actually, you are probably closer to the truth." Thank you. Check please.

The other interesting thing I'm hearing is that findings are always interpreted negatively. Example: "People are campaigning through consumerism Buy-cotting and Boycotting. They purchase Fair Trade products, shop at farmers' markets and buy organic and think they are making a contribution. What a terrible loss this is for the charity sector." Hello? I see this as an opportunity not a loss. Same with this example: "people are no longer volunteering or voting but they do spend their free time on the internet. What does this say about the sad future of our country?" Hello? It says that people are "volunteering" their time to create facebook pages, blogs and open source. Talk to them in these forums.

But you know what it is? If you are a researcher you are invested in analyzing your area of focus. If that area shows change you may have to change your research focus. Doesn't seem like people want to make that change and risk their reputations. Also, many of these folks seem to have their theories all nicely defined but have had no experience in reality - meaning the day to day operations of charity organisations. You can just hear it in the conclusions they draw from the research.

My Conclusion: I am so happy that I didn't pursue a PhD and instead am within the sector, developing and sharing best practices as a practitioner and consultant.