Community-Based Research

Strategy  •  Background  •  Next Steps  •  Available Resources

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.


We define community-based research (CBR) as 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 can be seen on a continuum, as shown in this description from the University of Iowa:

Traditional Research  |  Community-placed Research  |  Community-based Research (CBR)  |  Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR)

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. 

Community-based research is the most common form of capacity-building project taken on by students.  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.).

Connection to Community Impact

Community partners are interested in how CBR projects can help them to gain resources and benefits, such as:

Short-term/Concrete Projects: CBR partnerships help community groups accomplish more tasks that are already on their immediate agenda. A class, for example, may capture a community group’s vision for their neighborhood on a Site Plan.

This slide shows the context of organizational planning and implementation in which CBR questions are requested. Click to enlarge.

Strategic Thinking: Access to quality information also enables non-profits to ‘look beyond the curve’ and act more strategically. In particular, it informs their program development and program evaluation efforts.

Better Systems and Skills: CBR projects often leave the community partner with new or improved data collection and analysis capabilities (e.g., in-take forms and database) as well as trained staff (depending on their level of involvement).

Information to engage policy makers: The “hard” data and analysis that can emerge from CBR projects can replace anecdotes, substantiate the importance of the organization’s work, and make it harder for policy makers and funders to marginalize the voice of community agencies or residents.

Credibility in the eyes of decision-makers: The added credibility, rightly or wrongly, that results from a report being written (or co-written) by an academic, also can lend weight to the arguments offered by the community.

Civic Efficacy and Competence: Participation in projects that empower community members to identify, research and address problems that affects their lives, has the potential to increase their confidence that they can make a difference as well as their skills to do so.  In this process, organization or community members may find a way to more consistently make civic and policy engagement part of their overall work.


Connection to Student Impact

Community-based research projects give students an invaluable opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they are learning in the classroom to meet community-identified research needs.


The Bonner Foundation has worked with campuses since 1997 to catalyze the development of community-based research (CBR).  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. 

Special CBR edition of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (2003).  Click  to view articles.

Special CBR edition of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (2003). Click to view articles.

Our 1997-2000 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-grants 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. 

A Practical Handbook for Supporting CBR with Undergraduate Students.  Click  to view.

A Practical Handbook for Supporting CBR with Undergraduate Students. Click to view.

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.  

In addition, another book, Community-Based Research: Teaching for Community Impact, edited by Mary Beckman and Joyce F. Long, grew out of this third grant.

Next Steps

While most campuses have some faculty who incorporate community-based research projects into an academic course, this piecemeal approach falls far short of the need expressed by our community partners and the interest of our students to respond.

The major challenge now is one of scale.  Campuses need to build their infrastructure to be capable of coordinating at least 15-25+ CBR projects each semester.  Such a CBR Center (or hub within a campus-wide community engagement center) could facilitate CBR projects linked to new or emerging community-engaged academic pathways and capacity-building capstone projects. 

Available Resources

You can read more about the principles or ingredients for successful CBR Partnerships, and find other resources on CBR on the Bonner wiki, where you will find numerous guides, campus examples, and links to books, articles, and presentations.

The CBR Institutionalization Checklist contains a series of questions about the state of your CBR on campus not only as an individual program, but also within the context of the entire university. Developed by the National Community-Based Research Networking Initiative, a project funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America program, it is both an assessment and a reflection tool.

The section on guides referenced in the chart below that outlines a variety of options for growing CBR capacity on a campus.

Click to enlarge.