Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Benefits And Challenges Of Charities Engaging With Academic Research: In Discussion With The Association Of Visitors To Immigration Detainees

On Wednesday, 15th May 2024, the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice cohort at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology hosted Miranda Reilly, Co-Director for Membership and Operations, and Gee Manoharan, Co-Director for Policy and Influencing, from the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID). The speakers explained the ways in which AVID engages with academic research, outlined key case studies, and highlighted the benefits and challenges of commissioning research. The presentation ended with practical suggestions for academics seeking to work with charities.


Lauren Fox


Time to read

3 Minutes

AVID’s Engagement With Academic Research

The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) supports volunteer visitor groups who offer social support to individuals in immigration detention. AVID also provides training, advocacy, and monitoring, to work towards ending immigration detention in the UK. In this work, Gee Manoharan explained, AVID utilises academic research in a number of ways. Research can be disseminated to the volunteer network to inform their own practice. Given that their audience is primarily activists and volunteers, AVID seeks to share academic findings in an accessible, practical way. More broadly, AVID’s engagement with the media is assisted through utilising data from academic research. In a different context, academic work can contribute towards lobbying parliamentary groups or engaging with civil servants, through adding an additional layer of evidence and legitimacy to their arguments. Research is particularly useful in contextualising findings which visitor groups observe on the ground.

The speakers shared a series of case studies to illustrate the varied and impactful role of academic research in assisting their work to support immigration detainees. For example, Dr Teresa Degenhardt's work on the impact of Covid-19 on visitors to immigration detention centres was commissioned after AVID noticed emerging patterns in visitor experience during the pandemic. This study was used to provide legitimacy and leverage when engaging with staff at detention centres, with the findings being shared with the Home Office. Similarly, AVID has commissioned research on the role of visitors in working towards alternatives to immigration detention, going beyond the provision of immediate frontline support.

AVID has also worked on more creative forms of collaboration, such as theatre workshops for individuals with lived experience of immigration detention. These workshops involved creative writing, songs, and movement, which focused on creating a supportive community space. This contrasts with more traditional methods such as interviewing, which often requires immigration detainees to recount traumatic experiences. The speakers explained that the process was described as ‘healing’, with the relaxed environment facilitating organic conversations.

Benefits And Challenges Of Collaboration Between Charities And Academics

The speakers set out a number of benefits of using academic work for charities. Academic approaches can offer new perspectives, such as the post-colonial work utilised in a public letter addressed to King Charles III on his coronation. Scholarship can also allow charities to ‘connect the dots’ through utilising work from a range of countries, in addition to allowing charities to better understand the context of their own work. Beyond this, charities may use statistics and data from studies to challenge public perception or raise awareness around particular issues.

The speakers reported that collaboration between charities and academics is particularly effective when the research project has clear objectives, with transparency over the aims, methods, and roles of those involved. Following clear guidelines and ‘due process’ helps to build trust between researchers and participants. It is particularly important for individuals to feel heard and understood, and to have the opportunity to talk about their experiences on their own terms. In a broader sense, it is vital that the researcher is able to clearly explain how the research findings will benefit the charity and its service users.

Collaboration between charities and academics can, however, create challenges. A particular concern is when research feels extractive or transactional, with academics utilising the resources or connections of a charity without fostering an ongoing relationship with the organisation or seeking to understand its needs. This approach to research may be particularly difficult for small organisations with limited capacity, such as AVID. They urged academics and students to be more sensitive to the resource demands of the organisation whose priority is their service users.

More broadly, the research process may be re-traumatising for individuals, who may receive no support or information about how their story is being used following an interview or focus group. Interviewees may receive no recognition for their contributions, or may even be unable to access the final output due to paywalls or difficulties in attending conferences. The demands imposed by university bureaucracy and ethics boards may make it difficult for the atmosphere of focus groups or workshops to remain informal. As Miranda Reilly explained, creative forms of research such as the theatre workshops outlined above may address some of these concerns through adopting a community-based approach.

Practical Recommendations

The speakers concluded the presentation with some practical recommendations for researchers:

  1. Prioritise building a relationship with the charity or organisation, such as through participating in voluntary work.
  2. Recognise the priorities and resource demands of the charity. Address the long-term impacts of the research, such as the ongoing support which charities may offer to participants. 
  3. Tailor your proposals to the specific charity in question. Consider the aims of the charity and the research focus which could be most beneficial to their work. Be open-minded and flexible in shaping your research proposal.
  4. Show that you have considered how participants will experience the research process. Think about using a lived experience lens or utilising collaborative, co-creative approaches.
  5. Consider how the research will be disseminated. Address the challenge of paywalls through presenting the research in a range of formats, such as through social media, webinars, podcasts, briefing papers, or blog posts.

The experiences and suggestions shared by the speakers raise a number of important points for researchers. When seeking to utilise the resources or networks of charities, it is vital that academics consider the impact of their work on both the charity itself, and its service users. Through building relationships, using collaborative methods, and ensuring that findings can be shared widely, researchers can work towards maximising the benefit of their work.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

L. Fox. (2024) The Benefits And Challenges Of Charities Engaging With Academic Research: In Discussion With The Association Of Visitors To Immigration Detainees. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2024/05/benefits-and-challenges-charities-engaging-academic. Accessed on: 17/07/2024