Background: Successful community–academic research partnerships require building the capacity of both community-based organizations (CBOs) and academics to conduct collaborative research of mutual interest and benefit. Yet, information about the needs and goals of research-interested CBOs is lacking. Our partnership aimed to conduct a community research needs assessment and to use results to develop future capacity-building programs for CBOs.

Methods: Based on our review of the literature, informal interviews with research-interested CBOs and community-engaged research groups locally and nationally, we developed a needs assessment survey. Key domains of this survey included history and experience with research collaboration, interest in specific research topics, and preference for learning format and structure. We trained community health workers (CHWs) to recruit senior leaders from CBOs in New York City (NYC) and encourage them to complete an on-line survey.

Results: Fully 54% (33/61) of CBOs completed the needs assessment. Most (69%) reported involvement with research or evaluation in the last 2 years and 33% had some funding for research. Although 75% had collaborated with academic institutions in the past, 58% did not rate this experience well. The four areas respondents prioritized for skills building were program evaluation, developing needs assessments, building surveys, and understanding statistical analyses. They were less interested in learning to build collaborations with academics.

Conclusions: A formal needs assessment of research training and educational needs of CBOs revealed that most had experience, albeit negative, with academic collaborations. CBO leaders wanted to build skills to conduct and analyze assessments and program evaluations. Our community–academic partnership is using these findings to develop a research capacity-building course. Other partnerships should consider conducting such assessments to transform the capacity of CBOs to be active research partners and leaders.


Community engagement, community-based participatory research, capacity building, needs assessment

When representatives of CBOs and community leaders work in partnership with academics to conduct research, this community engagement can inform the research question, process, and methods, by yielding critical insights and ideas, introducing innovative questions, raising community and ethics concerns, and offering knowledge of diverse cultures within its community.

There are many factors that play a role in community–academic partnerships that prove to be ineffective and do not meet the expectations of its partners. An important factor is the current disparity in research capacity and experience between academic and community partners, a critical dynamic that can exacerbate inequities and tensions within the collaboration.

To date, there has been inadequate attention to and resources focused on preparing CBO staff in research fundamentals so that their engagement in the research process is as an informed participant and collaborator. Building the capacity of CBOs to engage effectively in research enhances their ability to develop and conduct their own research and program evaluation. [End Page 291]

There are few published articles that discuss building the capacity of CBOs to design, develop, and implement research. The Clinical and Translational Science Awards’ (CTSA) Task Force on the Principles of Community Engagement prioritizes “research collaboration ethics” as the first step in community capacity building and active engagement in research collaboration. Some efforts to date have focused on ethics training as a means of building research capacity.1 These articles describe the University of Pennsylvania’s ethics training course that includes examples of unethical research conducted in communities2,3 and the University of Colorado Clinical Translational Institute’s monthly seminars for faculty, staff, and community members that focuses on community engagement, funding, health disparities, and partnership building.4 Many of the recent efforts by academic institutions to engage communities were propelled by the creation of the National Institutes of Health’s CTSA and its required community engagement cores.57 Yet, from a review of the literature and program websites, institutions that are creating a research training series seem to base their curriculum on perceived areas of interest of community members rather than through a formal needs assessment of the identified community. Such efforts, although important, may reflect the challenges that catalyzed the field of CBPR: That research initiatives are enriched when there is bidirectional learning and dialogue on community needs and methods to achieve identified outcomes. This paper describes an essential first step, often overlooked, in community research capacity building—conducting a needs assessment to develop a research capacity-building training model.

In 2009, Mount Sinai established a community engagement core, The Centers for Community and Academic Research Partnerships (CCARP), as part of Conduits, their CTSA.8 Nurturing and developing community-engaged research affecting the well-being of diverse communities and population groups in NYC has been CCARP’s underlying and driving purpose.9 To achieve these goals, CCARP, led by a partnership board, shapes the community-engaged research portfolio for conduits, builds researcher and community skills in conducting community-engaged research, and sparks and supports community–academic research partnerships. Led by community and academic co-chairs, the board is composed of leaders of 22 research-interested CBOs and 12 community-interested academics from Mount Sinai and affiliated institutions in NYC. The community members reflect NYC’s diverse population and lead key research-interested organizations and constituencies including faith-based, social service, advocacy, and healthcare organizations. The board supports the continuum of community-engaged research, ranging from early introductions of community stakeholders to researchers through implementation of CBPR projects. The board meetings provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and participate in research-related activities initiated by community leaders and academics who are board members or who are part of our larger, city-wide community and academic networks.

Through retreats and bimonthly meetings, the board chose key areas of focus and developed subcommittees for each. Community partners immediately identified the need to build research capacity of CBOs and, with board approval, formed a research capacity building subcommittee made up of two researchers and four CBO leaders, including co-authors Peggy Shepard and Veronica Piedra.10 The subcommittee reviewed the community capacity-building work of community engagement cores of other CTSAs including Northwestern’s Alliance for Research in Chicago Communities. The alliance provides seed grants to community–academic partners for capacity building and the CTSA at New York University provides community capacity building through 1- and 2-day conferences.11,12 The subcommittee then conducted a literature review, informal interviews with research-interested CBOs and community-engaged research groups locally and nationally, and a search of key websites such as CORUS13 and Community–Campus Partnerships for Health.14

Through this work, the subcommittee concluded that (1) most CBOs have diverse skills and capacity that will facilitate research involvement, (2) cuts in traditional sources of funding for many CBOs might be an incentive for them to expand their skills to new areas, such as research to develop diversified funding streams, and (3) the work and credibility of CBOs could be enhanced by incorporating appropriate research and program evaluation methods into their projects. The team also recognized that it was crucial to hear from front-line CBOs in NYC to ensure that the board’s work reflected the true needs and priorities of the organizations it aims to serve. Thus, to develop a capacity-building strategy to support local CBOs, the subcommittee decided to survey local CBOs to better understand their interest in research, [End Page 292] the skills and knowledge they would like to gain, and their preferred learning formats.


The subcommittee developed a CBO research needs assessment survey (Appendix). First, we identified several key domains using the sources outlined above, including (1) prior history with research participation and academic collaboration, (2) level of satisfaction with collaboration, (3) perceived research and program evaluation needs and interests (i.e., survey development, organizational assessment, data analysis, literature review, ethics, negotiating academic collaborations, and funding), and (4) preferred learning format (i.e., individual, group, in person, on line, length, and frequency of training). We developed questions because we could not find validated scales to measure these domains. We piloted the survey with board members’ organizations and revised the survey based on their feedback.

To collect survey data, we employed CHW students from a local community college who conducted this work to complete a 70-hour internship requirement. All CHWs received training in research ethics and the project was approved by the Program for the Protection of Human Subjects Office at Mount Sinai.

To identify organizations to be surveyed, we generated a preliminary list of 80 NYC organizations through networks of board members and through a listing in the Foundation Center’s Directory of organizations that had received grants in 2009–2010 in health services or research.15 We contacted these organizations, and after discussions with their senior executives eliminated 19 organizations no longer in operation or disinterested in research. The CHWs then sent an email invitation with a SurveyMonkey link to the remaining 61 organizations, following up by mail, email, and telephone calls over a 90-day period to ensure that any questions or concerns by organizations were addressed appropriately and that the survey was submitted to a person senior enough in the organization to ensure complete knowledge of the research activities and interests of the organization. To maximize results, we sent the survey link to non-responders on three occasions, phoned leaders 10 times, and offered to administer the survey by phone or in person if the contacts preferred. The subcommittee worked with CCARP’s statistical support team to analyze the data, using simple frequencies for most results and analysis of variance between groups to compare the mean response between the groups and Pearson correlations to compare within-group responses.

Table 1. Description of Organizations in Needs Assessment (N = 33)
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Table 1.

Description of Organizations in Needs Assessment (N = 33)

[End Page 293]


Of the 61 organizations contacted, 33 responded (54%). There were no differences between respondents and non-respondents by organization, location type, or population served. Their median size was 42 full-time staffers with 5 volunteers. As summarized in Table 1, most were in Manhattan, provided direct social services, served diverse vulnerable populations of all ages, and provided services related to many common health conditions.

Research Experience and Collaboration

As shown in Table 2, although less than one half of CBOs have a research or evaluation unit and only one in three have ever had funding for research or evaluation, most have conducted some research or program evaluation in the last 2 years. Although three in four have collaborated with academics and are interested in future academic collaborations, fewer than one half rated their history of academic collaboration as very good or excellent.

Table 2. Research Experience and Collaboration of Organizations (N = 33)
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Table 2.

Research Experience and Collaboration of Organizations (N = 33)

Table 3. Areas of Expressed Research Interest (N = 33)
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Table 3.

Areas of Expressed Research Interest (N = 33)

Training and Education Interests

The four areas of greatest interest reported were program evaluation, developing needs assessments, statistical analysis, and survey development. There was less interest in how to establish research collaboration with academics. With regard to what method of training or education would work best for the responding organizations, the response was mixed: 33% preferred a hybrid, in person/online program; 30% preferred a 1-day conference; and 27% preferred a multi-week, formal course. Respondents interested in research collaboration were more likely also to be interested in program evaluation, organizational evaluation, human subjects protection, or general research design (Table 3). There were no differences in interests [End Page 294] or experiences between the two largest types of organizations: Direct social service and health service (data available on request). Organizations that consider themselves to be providing non-direct health services had the highest levels of interest in program evaluation and needs assessment development. Programs that provide direct health services had higher levels of interest in statistical analysis (data available on request).

Use of the Survey to Develop a Capacity-Building Training Program

The subcommittee presented their findings and recommendations to the board to develop an action plan. The board decided to develop a 12-session capacity-building training program with monthly rotating in-person and on-line workshops. To take next steps, the subcommittee met to develop a curriculum.16 In addition to topics of interest identified by survey respondents (program evaluation, survey development, and data analysis), we chose to supplement those with basic research topics that people often “don’t know that they don’t know or don’t know they need to know,” as expressed by one CBO member. These include setting realistic goals, defining a research question, selecting the best study or program evaluation design and methods to answer the question, and principles and strategies to engage research participants. The subcommittee planned to offer these basic research topics to participants briefly, and expand on them if participants expressed interest in learning more about them. Participants will have access to the university’s computing system for literature review, and we will have computer terminals available for hands-on class practice on data analysis.

We contacted board members and survey respondents to identify potential participants. An on-line application process requires applicants to have a leadership role in a research-interested CBO, a written letter of support from its executive director to ensure they will have protected time to take the course and complete coursework, and a research or program evaluation question in mind. To facilitate experiential learning, the participants will work to develop and implement a research project. Through group learning and individualized technical assistance, course teachers (both community and academic experts) will help participants to shape their research question, apply new knowledge of methods and research design, practice conducting and analyzing data, and interpret results. The subcommittee has developed an evaluation plan that includes administering pre- and post-evaluation questions to participants so that we can refine recruitment and course content, and targeted follow-up with all CBOs who participated in the research needs assessment.


To build community organizations’ capacity to conduct research and program evaluation, our community–academic partnership developed, implemented, and analyzed a survey to inform development of a participatory, goal-directed research training program. Several important lessons emerge from this work. First, through an egalitarian partnership, we were able to identify a community priority: To increase research and evaluation capacity of CBOs. Through the work of the Partnership Board, we developed a needs assessment and used the results to address research capacity, and we were able to incorporate the board members’ wide range of expertise in needs assessment, education and training, research capacity building, and CBO-skills, operations, and challenges. As a result, we have built a strong team to address these goals and a training program with great educational and collaborative potential.17 Just as it is important to use community-engaged approaches to conduct high-impact research that benefits local communities, we have found it critical to move beyond researchers’ assumptions about what CBO leaders need to know about research, and engage communities to develop research capacity building programs that meet their needs.

Second, similar to other community-engaged projects, this kind of community research capacity-building project requires consistent staffing and ongoing support from academic institutions and CBOs. It is important to explore and have a clear understanding of what resources are available from all partners, articulate how these will be deployed and shared, and ensure they will be sufficient to take such a task through to its completion.18 In this case, the academic institution had resources to provide staffing and analytic support and to help community representatives on the board to collect, analyze, and interpret data. Community partners had expertise and networks that were invaluable. They identified critical survey domains and led the planning of a training and education model reflective of CBO interests, needs, and preferences.

Third, it may take this type of longitudinal approach to [End Page 295] develop true community–academic partnerships with the opportunity to foster trust and mutual exchange of ideas and experiences. The time and resource investments made by CBOs and academic institutions in supporting CBPR are a crucial component in designing education and training programs responsive to community needs, but they are also an example of a collaborative intention to level the playing field. Short-term outcomes will likely include stronger, more informed community–academic partnerships, and better informed CBO focus on program evaluation. Academic and CBO returns on investment may include novel ideas, increased funding, enhanced capacity building, and movement toward new and important organizational directions.19 Both stake-holders—researchers and communities—may also begin to see each other as strong partners and collaborate to advanced commonly held goals to improve community health.20

Last, this goal-oriented board partnership was working through its own partnership process while it was developing the survey and course. Each step was iterative, and we will use lessons learned to implement and evaluate the training program, and assess additional needs of CBOs as the workshop proceeds infuses by the experience of board members and the communities they represent. Through this process, we hope to create a sustainable model for community research capacity building.21

We recognize that the study had limitations. The sample size was small, which limits generalizability and precludes more robust analysis of subgroups within those who responded. Despite use of extensive follow-up procedures, we had a 54% response rate. Nonresponders may have had different priorities and interests, although their basic characteristics did not differ from those of respondents. Despite these shortcomings, we were able to build a partnership with the participating CBOs, identify CBO research priorities, and use information gained to offer an interactive, learner-centered program to increase their capacity to be involved substantively in research, and ultimately to direct their own research agendas.

Crispin N. Goytia
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Lea Todaro-Rivera
Peggy Shepard
West Harlem Environmental Action
Veronica Piedras
New Americans Entrepreneurship Project, Inc.
Submitted 30 August 2012,
revised 11 February 2013,
accepted 18 May 2013. The work was funded by grant UL1TR000067 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.


The authors thank all members of the Conduits Community–Academic Research Partnership Board for their guidance and expertise. [End Page 296]


1. Anderson EE, Solomon S, Heitman E, DuBois JM, Fisher CB, Kost RG, et al. Research ethics and education for community-engaged research: A review and research agenda. J Empir Res Hum Res 2012;7:3–19.

2. Barchi F, Kasimatis-Singleton M, Kasule M, Khulumani P, Merz JF. Building research capacity in Botswana: A randomized trial comparing training methodologies in the Botswana ethics training initiative. BMC Med Educ 2013;13:14.

3. Purcell EP, Mitchell C, Celestin MD, Evans KR, Haynes V, McFall A, et al. Researcher to Reality (R2R) mentorship program: Building partnership, capacity, and evidence. HPP 2013;1:7.

4. University of Colorado CTSI Community Engagement Core [cited 2013 Feb 05]. Available from: http://cctsi.ucdenver.edu/CommunityEngagement/Pages/default.aspx

5. Cargo M, Mercer SL. The value and challenges of participatory research: Strengthening its practice. Annu Rev Public Health 2008;29:24.1–24.26.

6. National Center for Advancing Translational Science [cited 2013 Feb 01]. Available from: http://www.ncats.nih.gov/about/about.html

7. Clinical Translational Science Award [cited 2013 Feb 01]. Available from: https://www.ctsacentral.org/

8. Strategic Goal Committees Clinical Translational Science Awards [cited 2012 Apr 16]. Available from: https://www.ctsacentral.org/content/strategic-goal-committees

9. Braun KL, Nguyen, TT, Tanjasiri SP, Campbell J, Heiney SP, Brandt HM, Smith SA, et al. Operationalization of community-based participatory research principles: Assessment of the National Cancer Institute’s Community Network Programs. Am J Public Health 2011;102:1195–203.

10. Wallerstein NB, Yen IH, Syme SL. Integration of social epidemiology and community-engaged interventions to improve health equity. Am J Public Health 2011;101:822–30.

11. Northwestern University Clinical Translational Sciences Institute [cited 2013 Feb 5]. Available from: http://www.nucats.northwestern.edu/community-engaged-research/alliance-for-research-in-chicago-communities/index.html

12. New York University Clinical Translational Institute [cited 2013 Feb 4]. Available from: http://ctsi.med.nyu.edu/community

13. CORUS [cited 2013 Feb 04]. Available from: https://ctsacorus.org

14. Community Campus Partnerships for Health [cited 2012 Aug 29]. Available from: depts.washington.edu/ccph

15. The Foundation Center [cited 2013 Feb 4]. Available from: http://fconline.foundationcenter.org

16. Zimmerman MA. Empowerment theory: Psychological, organizational, and community levels of analysis. In Rappaport J, Seidman E, editors. Handbook of community psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum; 2000:43–63.

17. Jones L, Wells K. Strategies for academic and clinician engagement in community-participatory partnered research. JAMA 2007;297:4.407–10.

18. Israel BA, Coombe CM, Cheezum RR, Schulz AJ, McGranaghan RJ, Lichtenstein R, et al. Community-based participatory research: A capacity-building approach for policy advocacy aimed at eliminating health disparities. Am J Public Health 2010;100:11.2094–102.

19. Horowitz CR, Robinson R, Seifer S. Community-based participatory research from the margin to the mainstream: Are researchers prepared? Circulation 2009;119:2633–42.

20. Griffith DM, Allen JO, DeLoney EH, Robinson K, Lewis EY, Campbell B, Morrel S, et al. Community-based organizational capacity building as a strategy to reduce racial health disparities. J Prim Prev 2010;31:31–9.

21. Farquhar SA, Michael YL, Wiggins N. Building on leadership and social capital to create change in 2 urban communities Am J Public Health 2005;95:4.596–601. [End Page 297]

Appendix A. Community Needs Assessment Survey

Community Needs Assessment

The Centers for Community and Academic Research Partnerships (CCARP) is part of the Clinical and Translational Sciences Award from the National Institutes of Health. In our work we are interested in learning more from communities about what their needs are so we can better address them. Your feedback is of the utmost importance and we greatly value it. If you have any questions please feel free to contact:

  • Crispin Goytia, Community Program Manager

  • Centers for Community and Academic Research Partnerships

  • Mount Sinai School of Medicine

  • 1 Gustave Levy Place, Box 1077

  • New York, NY 10029

  • 212-824-7323; Email: crispin.goytia@mountsinai.org

Organization Name:
Address of Organization:
City: State: Zip Code:
Email & Telephone:

Please indicate whether the organization is:

□ Direct social service organization □ Academic/Research Institution
□ Direct health service organization □ Government office
□ Religious Organization □ Other (specify:___________________________________________________)

How many staff members do you have in your organization? (If you don’t have an exact number a rough estimate would be appreciated.): Full or Part time ________ Volunteer _______

What community/communities does your organization primarily serve? (Check all that apply.)

□ Families □ Immigrants
□ Children (all ages) □ Underrepresented minorities or communities
□ Adults □ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning
□ Seniors (65+) □ Other __________________________________________________________

What health issues, if any, does your current programming address?

□ obesity □ substance abuse/tobacco use □ asthma
□ cancer □ mental health □ arthritis
□ diabetes □ infectious disease □ oral health
□ access to care □ injury and violence □ sexual or reproductive health
□ heart disease/stroke □ maternal health □ occupational health
□ other: (please specify)______________________________________________________________________________________

Research and Evaluation Experience

Does your organization have a research/evaluation unit or program? If so, please describe. □ Yes □ No

About how many staff people are involved in research or evaluation?: ___________

Do you have funding for research/evaluation? □ Yes □ No [End Page 298]

What is your main focus for research or evaluation?

  • □ a. Program evaluation

  • □ b. Organizational evaluation

  • □ c. Program development

  • □ d. Service improvement

  • □ e. Other:_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Has your organization participated in any research projects in the last 2 years? □ Yes □ No

If Yes, what was it health related research or nonhealth related? Please briefly explain. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Has your organization collaborated with academic institutions to pursue a research goal? □ Yes □ No

If yes, what was the research? ____________________________________________________________________________________

If you partnered with an academic institution or participated in research in the last two years:

What were the outcomes/products? For example, was a paper published? Was a member of the organization an author or presenter on the topic? Specify: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

How would you rate your organization’s experience with research or evaluation?

□ Poor □ Fair □ Good □ Very Good □ Excellent


If training in research were offered would you participate? □ Yes □ No

If yes, what format would be bes? □ Multi-week course □ Online □ In person □ Hybrid (in person and online) □ One day conference

How interested in your organization in participating in or working with a partner on research? “1” is the least important to you and “8” is the most important to you.

Least Important Most Important
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Please rank your interest in learning about the following topics. “1” is the least important to you and “8” is the most important to you.

Least Important Most Important
Program Evaluation 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Organizational Assessment 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Needs Assessments 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Negotiating to establish a partnership or collaboration 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Survey Development 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Human Subjects Protection 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
General Research Design 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Statistical Analysis 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Conducting a Literature Review 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Thank you for your time in filling out this needs assessment. Your answers will help us to indentify content for our future Community Based Capacity Building Course. [End Page 299]

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