The Power of Partnership


Building Effective Collaborations to Measure Empowerment of Domestic Violence Survivors

How do you know that REACH is doing a good job? Or any other charitable organization? With so many worthy causes and hard-working organizations out there, how do you decide which ones are worthy of your attention, support, and time?

This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves over the past several years. We can tell you stories of individual survivors who have benefitted from REACH’s services (and we do). We can offer you numbers of people served by our programs (and we do). Plenty of funders and other organizations have their own ideas about what “success” looks like, but in our experience those expectations don’t always get to the heart of what survivors themselves want and need, or allow room for the way that trauma impacts their experience. There’s no shortage of academic research on the topic of program evaluation, but reading scholarly journals and debating the merits of each study’s sample size and population doesn’t necessarily make it to the top of our “To Do” lists when there are people in crisis to support and a myriad of other day to day responsibilities. Not to mention, it has historically been difficult for academic researchers and programs on the ground to find ways to work together that meet both of their needs. But we have been fortunate to do just that.

In 2011, REACH was one of three local domestic violence agencies who met to talk about the increased need for program evaluation and outcome measurement, figuring that if we collaborated on something, we would hold each other accountable and it would be more likely to happen. We asked Dr. Lisa Goodman of Boston College (an expert in the field) for her input. I thought she would come to one of our meetings, provide some advice and point us in a direction and then go back to her busy schedule.  Instead, she asked if she could work with us on a long-term project and so began what we named the DVPERC, Domestic Violence Program Evaluation and Research Collaborative. Over the last three years, this group has created an evaluation tool that joins the key outcomes of domestic violence work – safety and empowerment – in a way that was relevant to the programs and also meaningful and valid scholarly research. Collaborators from several universities and 17 agencies worked over many months to work out what we really mean when we say “empowerment” – on both a theoretical and practical level.

Last week, I went with Dr. Goodman to present at the 2014 International Family Violence and Child Victimization Conference in Portsmouth, NH. My presence there was to talk about how to bring researchers and programs together. Conference organizers asked us to conduct a workshop on this topic because the DVPERC has been a wonderful example of Community Based Research (CBR). CBR is the practice of intentionally working WITH a community in the research process instead of doing research ON a community. In this case, the ‘community’ is defined as domestic violence programs and their staff.  We didn’t set out to enter into this relationship in a formal way but soon realized it had all the pieces of good CBR – built on the strengths of the community, addressed the needs of both partners, communicated needs and expectations of all partners, discussed power differentials and was willing to evolve and change over time.

At the core of Community Based Research is the relationship between the community (however it is defined) and the researcher(s). Relationship building takes time and transparency. The researcher needs to be able to say “I have a deadline” and the community needs to be able to say “respect us and our needs and don’t make us feel used.” Basically, we as program staff need researchers to be intentional about working with us and our participants instead of just coming in with whatever research question they feel is relevant and having people be researched upon.

In the conference workshop, we had participants from across the country that formed a fairly diverse group, many of whom had done direct service and are now researchers, so they were receptive to the idea that it can be useful to collaborate with programs/community partners. We talked about the history of the DV movement, tensions in the field and how they carry over to research and topics/areas where community based research can provide richer data than traditional research. Dr. Goodman and I also discussed the challenges and benefits to our particular collaboration. We have gotten to know each other as people, which helps bridge the researcher/practitioner divide and has created a trust that is essential to a good relationship. In the end, it isn’t any different than the healthy relationships we are trying to foster in our advocacy programs or in our prevention work.  Time + Transparency = Trust.

All of this work has resulted in the creation of a new survey – the Measure of Victim Empowerment Related to Safety (MOVERS) which draws on empowerment scholarship and the expertise of domestic violence program staff. It also addresses our need to measure the outcomes of our work in a practical way – our advocates are already using it in their work with survivors to measure things like: Are we helping survivors build skills that will strengthen their ability to achieve the goals they set out for themselves? Are we connecting them to resources in the community to increase their social connections and support?  Are we helping them navigate the trade-offs that are often created when working toward overall safety, and working with them to mitigate the negative effects of those trade-offs?   

It’s our hope that by continuing to build successful partnerships with academic researchers, we will be able to evaluate our programs with increasing rigor and demonstrate (scientifically) what we already know to be true: that a survivor-centered, strengths-based, trauma-informed approach to providing services creates lasting change and brings about safety and empowerment for domestic violence survivors.