Why Money Matters in CER

September 30, 2020

By: Kari Grain, PhD

Money can be an awkward thing to discuss in any type of a relationship, let alone in research relationships that seek the inspiring and elusive unicorn that is true “reciprocity”.

Placed side-by-side with the concept of reciprocity, money is soulless, concrete, and pragmatic. Reciprocity, instead, is intangible, ineffable. It’s a feeling rather than a transaction. It involves a spirit of generosity and a commitment to a relationship. Most importantly, reciprocity involves trust that others come to the relationship with a similar set of values.

When I was a PhD student in the nascent phases of designing my doctoral research plan, I read at length about the importance of reciprocity in community engaged research and community engagement work more broadly. I took it to mean that the community I was working with (in my case, a rural community called Kitengesa, Uganda) should benefit from our collaborative project, and that the spirit of mutual giving of time, labour, or resources, should result in a universal feeling that the project generated benefits for all.

Who Benefits from CER?

I learned through my readings in the field of CER that research—especially research with communities experiencing poverty—has often been a historically exploitative endeavour. In some cases, the researcher gains [degrees, publications, career advancement, awards, etc.], the institution gains [accolades, PR highlights, solutions, and medicines] and too often, the community is left with the same challenges it faced before the researcher arrived, except perhaps with jumbled social relations or complex shifts that ever so subtly transform the patterned fabric of a place and its people.

Of course, this is not always the case, and plenty of Indigenous researchers,1 Participatory Action (PAR) Researchers,2 and community engaged researchers (among others) have demonstrated ways that research can be a collaborative force for enhanced health and wellbeing, social justice, and decolonization.3

Given what I’d learned as a graduate student, I was determined to do CER with an attunement to reciprocity and that meant: being transparent and critically reflective about what I was gaining through the project; building in conversations about community collaborators’ desired outcomes; and ensuring that I leveraged some of my privilege to redistribute power and resources.4

Researching with Community

In the case of our CER project, the participants chose to be named as co-researchers and co-authors in a publication in the Journal of Experiential Education, but most importantly to them, we hosted a vibrant celebration and photo exhibition at the Kitengesa Community Library. There were speeches from local community leaders and a professor at Uganda Martyrs University; The co-researchers each took a turn at the microphone, talking about their photography and about challenges and promising projects in their community; I shared some information about my own connections to the project, and we paid the local high school dance troupe for a drumming and dance performance. 

We finished the full day event with a buffet-style dinner that was prepared by a local women’s collective. Our meal was followed by hours of dancing to the latest in Ugandan pop music. Everyone in attendance wore their most colourful outfits, and my experience of that day was one of joy, rhythm, and vibrancy.

The following year, in 2018, I had the pleasure of hearing renowned Maori scholar, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, speak on decolonizing research.5 She explained to the audience that (and I am paraphrasing based on my memory) “you’re not doing research right if it isn’t any fun.” It was only because of my experience in Kitengesa that I understood the essence of what she meant; My friends and colleagues in Kitengesa had taught me about a different way to do and disseminate research than what I had learned within the walls of the university—and it was a hell of a lot more fun than writing a dissertation.

You’re not doing research right if it isn’t any fun.

But the thing about CER (and its effective mobilization) is that it is situated in a modern capitalist global system; That means that it usually costs money. Knowledge is most effectively shared when other things like food, music, space, and arts and culture are shared too. In fact, for many people, knowledge is impossible to disentangle from other forms of human connection and communication (This carries several implications for our current moment in the midst of COVID-19 and social isolation, but it’s a topic for another time).

Money Matters

For institutions and researchers to commit to ethical CER, they must commit flexible funding and resources to community gatherings, local arts and culture, and fair compensation to embedded community participants and leaders who understand the pulse of a community. Rather than seeing money as the central transactional means of purchasing something, CER requires an understanding that money is just one asset among many other assets in a community. Notwithstanding the ways that capitalist modes of knowledge production can harm communities, in ethical CER money has the potential to be a vehicle for more equitable redistribution of resources, and a tool for decolonizing research practices. 

For institutions and researchers to commit to ethical CER, they must commit flexible funding and resources to community gatherings, local arts and culture, and fair compensation to embedded community participants and leaders who understand the pulse of a community. 

As a researcher connected to a large institution, money is one of the key assets I brought to our partnership, recognizing that labour, leadership, local expertise, and venues like the Kitengesa Community Library are all assets6 that different members of a partnership are able to contribute. The planning for our exhibition was led by the Ugandan co-researchers, and because of Canadian funds I had access to, I was able to pay for the costs (a Ugandan Sign Language translator; the high school dance troupe; the food and labour for food preparation; a local research assistant; speakers and electronic equipment rentals; brochure and photo printing, etc.)

To pay for all this, I used the Michael Smith International Research Grant, which I was able to access because of my Vanier Canada graduate scholarship. Furthermore, when I returned to Canada, eager to share our work with friends and colleagues at home, we successfully obtained Community Partnership funds for the C2U Expo, a large conference hosted by SFU and focusing on community engagement. Because of a $3000 grant, a key community partner from Uganda, Daniel Ahimbisibwe, was able to fly to Vancouver to co-present our research at the conference, and we also gave guest lectures at UBC and other venues.

These acts of reciprocity and mutual benefit were possible because of rare funds that were made available for such an endeavour. Other funding pools such as UBC’s Community University Engagement Support (CUES) fund offer money directly to the community organizations that partner with UBC. 

Unfortunately, flexible and accessible funds for CER are too rare, considering how prevalent community engagement is in universities. In many cases where institutional funds are made available, they are inhibitive insofar as they are subject to institutional policies and procedures that were not developed for or by community. Often, there are accounting procedures or unintentionally exclusionary policies that are barriers for community members (e.g. honoraria that must be given as gift cards; payments that are only issued using a social insurance number; expenses that must be paid up front before filing for reimbursement).

Maybe community members don’t have a social insurance number, or they have generations of justified mistrust in the government; maybe they are not able to accept typical fund dissemination in the form of cheques because they don’t use a bank; maybe there are cultural traditions around financial transactions, depending on people’s identities and positions; maybe cash is the only appropriate form of payment for certain individuals given their circumstances. Maybe it’s simply not a viable option for community members to pay for something up front and file for reimbursement later.

Some CER researchers are able to work around inhibitive university protocols by designing research projects that build into the budget a system of accessible funding flow to community organizations. Whatever the case may be, especially in unstable times such as these, the allocation of resources has significant impacts on social justice oriented approaches7 to community engagement and research. 

The allocation of resources has significant impacts on social justice oriented approaches to community engagement and research. 

I should note that despite some of the ways I have been able to engage in reciprocity as an early career scholar, I have only been able to do so because of the systems that were developed by people who recognized the importance of, and then enacted, community-oriented funding structures. Community engaged scholars, especially those who are under-resourced graduate students and new scholars with precarious contract employment, are better able to engage in ethical, reciprocal CER when institutional funding policies offer flexibility, agility and context-specific considerations.  

Within the CERi Office, and in collaboration with the inaugural cohort of CERi fellows, we have been thinking through these complexities, and the ways that capitalist modes of exchange bear down on reciprocity and relationships with community partners. Like many engaged researchers before them, CERi fellows are grappling with nuanced challenges pertaining to money, resources, and reciprocal engagement.

CERi’s intention is to explore this issue more deeply in order to discover ways that CERi and, more broadly SFU, can mitigate barriers for community members who so often contribute to the richness and livelihood of students, staff, and faculty at SFU. Stay tuned as we work together on a paper or blog post to share about specific dilemmas in current CER projects.


  1. See this UBC Indigenous Methodologies website for a profusion of examples, resources, and guiding principles for research in, with, and in relation to Indigenous communities.
  2. For more information on PAR, see Brown & Strega (2005) Research as Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Approaches
  3. It is worth noting that social justice and decolonization are not synonymous. According to Tuck and Yang (2012), “the broad umbrella of social justice” has room for a variety of goals that may include decolonization, however, “decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (2012, p. 22).
  4. For more information on ethical CER, see CERi’s Ethical Principles.
  5. See Tuhiwai-Smith’s (2013) book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.
  6. For more information on Asset Based Community Development, see: a) This foundational article by Mathie and Cunningham (2003), and b) This Nel (2018) article compares asset based approaches to needs-based approaches in terms of systems change in community settings.
  7. For more research at the intersection of social justice and community engagement, see “The Social Justice Turn: Cultivating Critical Hope in an Age of Despair” (Grain & Lund, 2016).

Kari Grain is a Special Research Associate for SFU’s CERi Office and a Sessional Instructor and Consultant at UBC. Her research focuses on community engagement, critical hope, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Twitter: @karigrain1

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