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Leadership in Research for Development


What makes a good leader in research for development? How can inclusive and diverse organizations be strengthened? How can understanding context and systems guide the work of research for development funders? 

At IDRC, these are interconnected questions we ask ourselves as we work to champion and fund research and innovation that can drive global change. We know that organizations cannot thrive without strong individual leaders, and individuals need enabling and nurturing organizations to become leaders. Organizations do not exist in isolation, rather they are a part of a larger environment. In our support of leadership in research for development we aim to influence multiple levels including individuals, organizations, and the wider contextual environment of which they are a part. 

System: What role does context play and how can we strengthen the enabling environment? Organization: How can research program design strengthen organizations? Individual: What makes for a good research leader? How can we support them?

IDRC’s long-standing commitment to strengthen the capacity of individuals and organizations to lead transformative change driven by research was renewed in Strategy 2030. We have published a series of briefs that draw on findings of evaluations focused on IDRC’s contributions to supporting leadership in research for development at the individual, organizational and systems level. You can learn more in the corresponding briefs and full evaluation reports below.

Who should read these briefs? This series of briefs on Leadership in Research for Development will be of interest to those who are funding or implementing research awards and scholarships and/or embedding capacity-building and leadership-building activities in research programs.

1. Individual leadership

When evaluators asked alumni of IDRC-supported capacity and leadership-strengthening initiatives what makes a good research leader they said, first and foremost, a leader should have expertise in their field. They consider decision-making capabilities and accountability to be top qualities for effective leadership. They also value less traditional characteristics such as the ability to empower and inspire others and to be inclusive and participatory. 

2. Organizational capacity strengthening 

Strengthening organizational capacity begins with program design through organizational structures and processes, research and uptake, and engaging with others. This section explores the relationships and connections that are important for organizational strengthening and how funders can best support leading organizations.  

3. Systemic level and the enabling environment

In building effective research for development leadership, it is key to integrate support for leadership at multiple levels — among individuals and organizations, but particularly the broader system that they operate within. An enabling environment is necessary for strong individual and organizational leadership. One key area that needs to be addressed across these three levels is gender equality and inclusion. Fostering gender equality and inclusion requires a complementary focus on the enabling environment in which individual and organizational leaders operate, and the systemic inequalities that need to be addressed for them to thrive.

The Building Leaders Evaluation

From 2015–2020, IDRC extended its longstanding focus on capacity building in research for development by implementing a strategy to “build the leaders of today and tomorrow” and support high-potential organizations and individuals who can make transformative development contributions. To learn from this strategy, IDRC conducted an evaluation composed of two modules:  

  1. The evaluation of IDRC’s contribution to building leading organizations examines the strategies and results of incorporating organizational development into research programs.
    1. IDRC also commissioned a final evaluation of the Think Tank Initiative, a 10-year program that provided core funding and supplemental capacity strengthening to 43 independent policy research think tanks in 20 countries.
  2. The evaluation “IDRC’s contribution to building emerging research for development leaders” assesses leadership-building in IDRC-funded award programs and research projects. Read a summary of the report.

Background papers:

  1. Preliminary frameworks from the IDRC leadership development working group
  2. Southern perspectives on research leadership: towards an evaluation framework