Community Research Partners learns how to run as a business

You may have never heard of Community Research Partners, but that’s OK. It’s more important that it exists.

Founded in 2000 as a partnership of the United Way of Central Ohio, the city of Columbus, Franklin County and The Ohio State University, CRP was developed to collect, analyze and disseminate original and secondary data. It helps organizations in the public, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors understand community conditions, trends, resources and needs.

These self-described research geeks create reports like the Franklin County Youth Needs Assessment or The Columbus Foundation’s Benchmarking Central Ohio reports.

For the first decade, however, CRP’s financials were in constant question.

“When I came on board, we certainly weren’t financially stable. We didn’t have cash reserves or anything. That has changed over the last three and a half years because we have been able to identify a business model,” says Executive Director Lynnette Cook.

The organization has transitioned from being a traditional nonprofit with grant-funded projects to a social enterprise. Cook says about 85 to 90 percent of CRP’s revenue now comes from fee-for-service projects.

“I’ve said many times, I’m never going to compete with babies, old people and puppies,” she says. “There are lots of great and compelling causes out there for philanthropic contributions and that’s just never really going to be us — even though people say absolutely, we need high-quality data to make decisions about community needs. It’s not something that tends to be a compelling ask for a donation.”

The good news, though, is in many ways, CRP can achieve even better on its mission if the business side of things runs smoothly.

“It is easier to achieve on the mission when you are running as an efficient business — and that was a powerful learning experience,” Cook says.

Cost differentials

When CRP was founded, there wasn’t a direct link between a project and its cost. It was: “Here’s the research we need and we’ll figure out a way to do fundraising to support the cost of that,” Cook says.

Now, the organization has an Excel spreadsheet that details every possible research task. If it’s running a focus group, for example, the spreadsheet details the different ways a focus group could be run and breaks down the cost per hour.

When somebody is shopping for a car, you have to know whether they have the budget for a Lexus or a Toyota Corolla, she says.

“When you’re running a business, you cannot sell the customer a Lexus at a Corolla price,” Cook says.

She’s helped her team realize that even though they want to do every bit of research possible — because they are passionate about community change and getting people information so they can make smart decisions — giving the client a Lexus won’t help CRP stay in business.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do a good job or didn’t want to help us keep our doors open; they wanted to do more and more and more for the client,” she says.

In addition, if it takes six months to build a Lexus-type project and two months to complete a Corolla-type project, the faster, but less complete answer might be better.

This new perspective has helped CRP reign in expenses and finish projects on time.

Cook also knows that if CRP’s researchers spend 70 percent of their time on billable projects, there are enough funds so their remaining time can be spent on mission-driven community work. That’s typically 30 small projects a year, 10 hours or less, pro bono.

There’s also a lot of crossover between the two types of work, she says.

Making connections

CRP gets a unique look at the community’s data. Cook says the researchers work across health and human services, workforce development, economy and community development, for example, so they get to see snippets of all kinds of data.

She’s seen time and time again where people are an expert at the data in their area, but they don’t have the opportunity to hear about data from other arenas — even though it’s often interconnected.

“I think what surprises us is how much these different experts aren’t talking to one another,” Cook says.

To help facilitate conversations and also make data more fun, CRP tries to visualize data, in what it calls databytes, on a monthly basis.

“We are intentional in trying to pick unusual datasets and really peak the interest and curiosity of people and make them think about something perhaps they haven’t thought about before,” Cook says.

CRP wants people to remember that there’s a lot of data they don’t know, which would be incredibly useful in what they do, even though it doesn’t necessarily feel directly relevant.

“People can often be intimidated by data, and anything we can do to help people understand that just because we’re research geeks doesn’t mean you can’t talk to us like normal people,” Cook says.