Student's Corner

How to engage in community-based research and build sustainable partnerships

Recommendations for researchers on building partnerships with members of their local communities to encourage and empower community members and organizations to participate in all aspects of the research process. 

By Lindsay Huffhines

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is scientific inquiry that takes place in the community – that is, outside of the laboratory, hospital or clinical setting – and tends to focus on populations rather than individuals (Blumenthal, Hopkins, & Yancey, 2013). The two main tenets of CBPR are 1) to conduct ethical research that responds to a history of exploitation of communities, particularly minority and low-income communities; and 2) to empower communities to participate in all aspects of the research process. Blumenthal and colleagues (2013) assert that ideally, the community in which the research is to be conducted will participate together with the academic research team in every phase of research: identifying the problem to be investigated, defining the research question, developing the protocol, conducting the study, and analyzing and disseminating results. Although there are various levels of community participation, there is potential for a meaningful relationship between researchers and the community whatever the level of participation. Many students wonder how to go about building such relationships with community members and organizations, thus the focus of this article is on developing relationships, with the goal of eventually conducting research with communities.

The following is intended as one student's perspective on the topic, with the goal of engaging others in conversation about methods and strategies for building relationships with communities, particularly communities where there is risk for child maltreatment.I describe here how my lab has partnered with the community using the steps listed by Blumenthal and colleagues (2013). First, the authors suggest learning the community layout. In my lab's research focusing on pathways to mental and physical health in youth exposed to maltreatment, at risk for maltreatment, or placed in foster care, we identified where we might access these populations. In our community, the Children's Division and Department of Family Services is an important gatekeeper (though not communities themselves), as well as a large community organization devoted to providing numerous resources to low-income families. My supervisor has had longstanding relationships with these organizations, founded on many of the principles described here. For example, she began by meeting with leaders in these organizations, trying to understand what their needs were and how we could help. She tried to understand the problems these organizations felt their communities were facing, and she shared her own concerns and ideas. Our lab has conducted several research studies with these same partners over the years, building up a positive relationship and allowing for future research to take place. Once we begin a research project, we attempt to make the workload for our partners as minimal as possible. For example, we hired a retired CPS caseworker to obtain and redact case files needed for our project to help ensure that case managers did not have to take time from their already overloaded schedules to do this task. Green and colleagues (2015) provide additional tips for accessing administrative child welfare data and navigating this particular community. Finally, bringing snacks or lunch never hurts – everyone enjoys some good food during a typical workday!

Next, learning the community ecology and community entry process is recommended. This means understanding who the community leaders are, where people congregate and what relationships exist. After identifying and building trust with the directors of organizations, we were able to learn more about how the community we were interested in worked. For example, with the organization serving at-risk families, we learned that all families we wanted to recruit for our research met with a family advocate. We then held a meeting for the family advocates to explain our project and how they could help – we wanted to get their buy-in, as well as their feedback on our recruitment techniques and how to best approach families. We gave them flyers and asked them to speak with their families about our project. We even provided coffee mugs with our project logo – a nice reminder of our project to have on their desk. This is one example of utilizing avenues that already exist within a community. Further, families already feel comfortable with their family advocates and may be more likely to sign up for the project. In addition, the directors and family advocates identified a group of parents who were very involved in the organization and held a lot of influence with other families. We attended their weekly coffee meeting and again explained our project and asked for feedback. These parents helped influence our study protocol and measures, and also told other parents good things about our project.

Building credibility is an important step. In the past we have conducted a program evaluation for the organization. We use the skills we possess as clinical child psychologists to show that we are serious about our work and strive to do a good job. We ask directors, family advocates, therapists and anyone else involved in the organization what they would like, and we bring water bottles, coffee mugs, and pens with our project name and phone number. We make sure that we have someone available to answer the phone during business hours in case anyone calls with a question, and we have created a phone script so that we are always prepared and professional. We respond within 24-hours to email. We send handwritten thank you notes and holiday cards to all stakeholders, leaders, community-members and participants.

During data collection, we anticipate families' needs to make the process as enjoyable as possible for them. This means providing child care, bringing snacks and water, having diapers and formula for babies, and making sure our data collection appointments are at accessible times (Saturdays and evenings) and on a bus route and at the community center, rather than the university.

For a recent project we were interested in assessing parent and child trauma exposure via an interview with the parent. We worked with a group of parents in the community of focus to help suggest questions and word items, and to share concerns and recommendations. Because of this, we were more confident that others in the community would feel safe and comfortable while completing the interview.

Once data collection is complete, we make sure to share our results with all interested parties in understandable language. We make colorful charts and graphs to illustrate our findings, and present to stakeholders at community events, such as foster parent meetings. To help keep our relationships with families in the community active, we send out newsletters and parenting handouts with tips for behavior management or other helpful or interesting ideas, such as keeping kids entertained on car rides.

In sum, we work extremely hard at building lasting relationships with everyone involved in the research process. We, in turn, are rewarded with extraordinary data that could have only been produced by close partnerships, and the knowledge that we can use this data to inform the community about issues close to their hearts.


Blumenthal D., Hopkins, E., & Yancey, E. (2013). Community-based participatory research: An introduction. In D. S. Blumenthal & R. J. DiClemente (Eds.), Community-based participatory health research: Issues, methods, and translation to practice (pp. 1-17). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Green, B. L., Ayoub, C., Bartlett, J. D., Furrer, C., Von Ende, A., Chazan-Cohen, R., ... & Nygren, P. (2015). It's not as simple as it sounds: Problems and solutions in accessing and using administrative child welfare data for evaluating the impact of early childhood interventions. Children and Youth Services Review, 57, 40-49.