When Should a Foundation Consider Using Participatory Action Research?

PAR is probably not the approach to take when you are, according to a grantmaker, seeking “demographic or cultural data,” or in the words of an evaluator, “looking at larger patterns, rates, changes over time,” or trying to demonstrate the results of an intervention by comparison with a control group.

But when considerations of community usefulness and internal transformation are important — if your program seeks to promote civic empowerment and democratic ideals — PAR should be considered. If your intent, said a grantmaker, is to “leave skills behind that will sustain accountability for certain outcomes,” PAR can be a powerful approach. “The more closely you want to understand the local community,” said an evaluator, the more relevant PAR becomes. “PAR builds knowledge,” explained a grantmaker, “that communities create, own, and use, transforming everyday knowledge into social capital for social change.”

Because the approach engages so many stakeholders, foundation staff tend to become more involved with PAR than with traditional evaluations, and they should be ready for that commitment. “PAR challenges the firewalls that many foundations put in between themselves and evaluation,” argued a researcher. “It challenges assumptions about who is responsible for social change and invites people outside as well as inside to get involved.” It invites grantmakers, themselves, to enter the process.

At the very least, foundations must be willing to accept the risk of “stirring the waters” of change and, according to an evaluator, be “flexible and open to products that might become different in the course of the work.” An internationally renowned researcher on participatory action approaches cautioned that PAR runs counter to normal foundation cycles. “It calls for iterative, long-term support, and doesn’t easily fit time-bound approaches,” he said. Bureaucracy becomes a “straight jacket,” particularly in an environment where projects face the “tyranny of the target,” when demands for “outcomes and indicators come from the top.”

But when funders can create space for the necessary flexibility, PAR evaluation can be powerful. Perhaps the most compelling words on when to use the approach come from a foundation president: “Not every evaluation project is appropriate for PAR. But when the day is done, if you’re trying to change practice, this is the vehicle.”

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Participatory Action Research.