Researcher-practitioner partnerships can be mutually beneficial. Practitioners who deliver programs to children and youth can benefit from research that helps them understand how their programs operate, how to improve outcomes for different types of youth in different contexts, and the extent to which their programs are achieving desired outcomes. Researchers interested in developing and evaluating programs to serve youth can improve their theories and interventions by gathering data in a real-life setting and integrating the practitioner’s perspectives and needs.

When researchers and practitioners build collaborations—researcher-practitioner partnerships (RPPs)—they can ensure that research questions and methods meet the needs of the program, yield results that can be used to improve programming, and generate practical scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, practitioners and researchers often fail to obtain mutually beneficial outcomes due to obstacles such as miscommunication, logistical challenges, practitioners with limited resources that serve populations with urgent needs, and competing or misunderstood goals for working together.

Child Trends staff and partners at the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA), the national resource office of the YMCA, recently developed a successful RPP collaboration to evaluate the Character Development Learning Institute (CDLI). Y-USA designed the CDLI to identify, test, and disseminate practices related to youth character development that staff and volunteers could learn and use in their programs to positively influence youth character development across different settings.

Over the course of three years, from the initial conceptualization of the program to its scaling at over 200 sites, Child Trends and Y-USA staff worked closely and intentionally together to clearly communicate about evaluation goals, methodological challenges, interim findings, and suggested tweaks to the CDLI. Child Trends and Y-USA staff also worked together to reduce the burden on program staff when collecting data during site visits, interviews, and focus groups. The iterative, step-by-step nature of the intervention development process that Y-USA uses has clear points when feedback can be shared and changes can be built into newer initiatives, which aligns well with an RPP.