Community-Based Research


The "purple book" as we often call it was published in 2003 and was a written by faculty involved of our first Learn & Serve America grant.

The "purple book" as we often call it was published in 2003 and was a written by faculty involved of our first Learn & Serve America grant.

The Bonner Foundation has worked with campuses since 1997 to catalyze the development of community-based research (CBR).  This has included working with faculty across more than 30 colleges and universities, supported financially by several Learn & Serve America grants. The Foundation worked in partnership with Princeton University and its Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI).

Of course, engaging students in doing research in response to requests from community partners wasn’t new in 1997.  It was being practiced and written about a few faculty leaders, including John Gaventa at UT-Knoxville, Phil Nyden at University of Loyola-Chicago, Dick Couto at the University of Richmond, and faculty at Cornell University.  But CBR wasn’t emphasized in the service-learning literature or training at that time. 

Learn & Serve Grants

After a failed CBR funding proposal to Learn & Serve America in 1994, we tried again and received the first of three separate 3-year grants (Note: after revising our language in the 1997-2000 grant cycle to emphasize that CBR was a form of service learning, which shows how unfamiliar the approach was back then).  

Our first grant supported a diverse group of 15 public and private colleges and universities — a community college, a number of small liberal arts colleges, a few research 1s and an ivy league school — which received mini-grant and gathered regularly to figure out how to incorporate community-driven research into courses. The lessons learned from this initial grant were eventually shared in 2003 in a special edition of the Michigan Journal and a book titled CBR and Higher Education: Principles and Practices. The second 2000-03 grant spread this model through local and regional community-campus partnerships involving multiple campuses and community partners in each location. 

The third 2006-09 grant spread CBR to new regions of the country and funded new approaches.  Two related efforts in public policy-oriented research were supported by the Learn & Serve funding:  PolicyOptions Issue Briefs and the State of the State of Latinos in Washington State.  To find community groups interested in public policy required reaching out to collaboratives of various kinds (i.e., alliances, coalitions, commissions, networks) that were engaged in network-based system change and therefore wanted to learn about what was working in other communities (model programs or evidence-based practices) and the public policies that impacted their work.  Another book, Community-Based Research: Teaching for Community Impact, edited by Mary Beckman and Joyce F. Long, grew out of this third grant.


Community-based research (CBR) is a form of community engagement in which community-identified needs for knowledge and information are addressed through partnerships often involving students, faculty, and community organizations or groups. This work grows out of models for popular education, participatory action research and related educational pedagogies, such as from the work of Paolo Freire, Kurt Lewin, and others. 


Community-based research (CBR) involves collaborative work between researchers (typically, faculty and students) and community members (typically nonprofit staff or clients) in the design and implementation of projects designed to address a community-identified need for data, information, and/or knowledge. The output (products) of such collaboration may include research papers but can also take other forms (i.e., issue briefs, needs assessments, environmental surveys, etc.). In this community-engaged model of research and scholarship, academic and community members work together to:

  • Identify research topics, issues, and questions (see the steps below for some suggestions on how to do this)
  • Develop research designs (which often are tied to a course or other credit-bearing projects, like independent study, for students)
  • Collect data or information (i.e., through qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods approaches)
  • Produce and write up results (this might involve different presentations of the same information, such as for a scholarly article, class paper, or community-oriented brochure or charette)
  • Work with relevant constituents such as policy makers and practitioners to disseminate knowledge and design and execute appropriate responses or next steps. For instance, a community-wide needs assessment about poverty might generate other projects, such as ways to improve coordination of existing services or increase access to health care.  This research is action-oriented (and often can involve students, faculty, and community constituents). 


You can read more about the principles or ingredients for successful CBR Partnerships, and find other resources on CBR on the Bonner wiki.