Caroline Fiennes: Stop producing such bad research

We don't all have to do it - instead, we can use the good research that already exists, writes our columnist

Caroline Fiennes
Caroline Fiennes

If campaigns to raise awareness of global poverty and progress in fixing it are reaching only those people who are already interested, what should we do? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of many bodies concerned about this, and it asked various communicators and academics to design some communications and campaigns to reach other audiences. They knew well the literature that shows how people respond to messages and that comedy can be a Trojan horse that carries messages beyond their normal reach. It also shows that engagement with social issues is hindered by "otherness" – the notion that they affect only people who are very different and far away. Then there is "narrative transportation", a well-evidenced theory that when we're transported deeply into a story, our barriers to persuasion fall.

The result is Stand Up Planet, an hour-long comedic travelogue documentary TV show "to entertain, to enlighten, and to see people living around the world through a new lens". Fronted by an Indian-born US stand-up comic, it's hilarious. The evaluations suggest it's effective at influencing attitudes, and the underpinning theories explain why.

The physicist Sir Isaac Newton famously proclaimed, in a rare moment of humility, that "if I have seen further than others, it has been by standing on the shoulders of giants". I'm only 5ft2in, so standing on anyone's shoulders sounds good to me.

Charities could do more "standing on giants" like this. It would remove two weird and wasteful traps to which we are susceptible. The first is thinking that every charity should produce research on its impact. This dreadful notion has emerged over the past 15 years from the monitoring and evaluation/impact lobby (of which I was part – oops). This is a problem because producing reliable research is a hard specialism. Few charities have the skills or money for good research – because they're actually designed to deliver services or run campaigns – and operational charities aren't incentivised to do research. It is better for them to use research that specialist giants have already produced.

The second, related issue is thinking that programmes are so innovative that no relevant research exists at all. This is almost never true: there is little under the sun so new or off-the-wall that humankind's entire experience cannot inform a guess as to whether it'll work or how to do it well. Take social impact bonds. Though they were unprecedented, they are basically a way to give providers an incentive to achieve particular targets – and much is known about how organisations respond to incentives.

So let's stop producing so much bad research and instead use existing research produced by relevant giants. Equally, funders need to stop asking every organisation for the impact research it has produced and ask about the research it uses.

What is the best research to use? It's a systematic review of all the evidence relevant to a topic. Systematic reviews are increasingly common in social issues. Next month I'll look at how they work and at a systematic review commissioned by a foundation to inform its funding. It is enabling us to see far further than research by any individual organisation ever would.

Caroline Fiennes is director of Giving Evidence and author of It Ain't What You Give

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