Equity as practice in research: notes on our methodology for Tipping the Scales

Teresa Perosa

Lee este post en Español.

For the better part of 2020, we worked with Open Society Foundations on a research project that looked at equity and resilience in the technology and human rights ecosystem, focusing specifically on how funding practices entrench or challenge existing power relations. 

Now that our research report is out (available in English, and Spanish—with shorter summaries—as well) and generating exciting conversations, we took some time to reflect on the experience as a whole and decided to share additional reflections that didn’t make it into the report. 

This blog post is part one of two. In this post, we will look at how focusing on equity in our research methods played a huge part in making the process so rich and fruitful.

In order to map out the challenges and needs facing the tech and human rights ecosystem, as well as current practices aimed at overcoming these challenges, we interviewed members of civil society organisations, independent activists, funders and other experts. Throughout our research, we explored the ways in which power and hierarchy unfold within this ecosystem and how practices such as feminist funding and participatory grantmaking can promote equity and, as a result, the long-term sustainability of the sector. 

A lot of what surfaced will not have come as a surprise for those working with tech and human rights (or for those following recent conversations about philanthropy centred around the effects of power asymmetries between funders and grantees). Yet, the reflections that emerged from this project during community calls, panels and one-on-one conversations underscored that civil society is craving more accountability, transparency and respect from the funder community, as means to a more equitable ecosystem—not just in rhetoric, but in practice as well.

Mapping the less visible actors

In our research, we at The Engine Room always try to listen to those who might be the canaries in the coalmine, seeking out less-heard voices and recognising experience as a form of knowledge. One of the primary discussions we had at the beginning of this specific project was about how we ourselves could promote and practise more equity through the research process itself.

To start addressing this right at the beginning of the project, we conducted a power mapping exercise, listing relevant actors (in this case, civil society organisations, activists, intermediary actors, traditional funding institutions, regional funders, and alternative funder collectives) and grouping them according to a variety of factors related to power—for instance, their capacity to influence the ecosystem or make decisions independently of others. 

As a result of this exercise, we committed to highlighting the experiences of what we called ‘less visible actors’, a term meant to encompass local, newer and smaller organisations, as well as informal collectives and activists doing important work at the margins who often do not enjoy visibility in the sector and who tend to have limited access to funding. We believe that if the sector is able to address the issues these groups and individuals face, we can have a more equitable ecosystem as a whole.

Respecting interviewee time and expertise

Keeping in mind the fact that civil society practitioners are often asked for information or advice without the value of their knowledge being properly recognised or their time being compensated, we tried to make sure to acknowledge the expertise and time of the practitioners participating in our research. To mitigate at least part of the exploitative dynamic that research endeavours can reproduce, we paid these participants a fee of US$75 in appreciation of their willingness to give us one hour of their time. With that, we hoped to show how much we value the expertise, and respect the time of people who are often overworked and perform multiple roles in their organisations. We chose not to extend our payment policy to interviewees from funding organisations, as they are, by virtue of their role, in a much better financial situation. 

Engaging participants in meaningful ways

As part of our aim of including participants as much as possible in the research process and the final outcome, we held two community calls for the civil society actors interviewed to share preliminary findings and, most importantly, to check if these resonated with the group. We also used these conversations to get a better sense of how we could leverage our findings in useful ways. These conversations helped inform the final report in a variety of important ways—from what we chose to highlight (e.g. trust in civil society actors as being crucial to an equity-based relationship between funders and grantees or the role of intermediary actors), to how we defined issues that surfaced (e.g. structural racism, extractive practices, and so on).

Mostly, we tried to be as transparent as we could about our goals for this project, as well as our limitations, and we kept communication channels open, ensuring that everyone we interviewed was kept updated on progress and next steps. 

As we noted in the concluding part of the report, committing to deconstructing and questioning traditional ways of doing research and, by extension, power dynamics themselves, is also a commitment to acknowledging that we may not always get it right—and that, in fact, there will always be more we could have done. But we strive to better every time and to keep on learning about ways to do. If you have any suggestions here, we’d be happy to hear them! Feel free to send thoughts or feedback to teresa[at]theengineroom.org.

In the second and final upcoming blog post in this series, we will cover more learnings from our research process. Stay tuned!

Image by Xavier von Erlach via Unsplash.


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