New online platform plays matchmaker for the public good

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Rebecca Valli
Adam Seth Levine
Levine

When Adam Levine was beginning his career, he was constantly seeking points of connection – opportunities to collaborate with the nonprofit and government sectors that could turn academic research into real-world results. Such collaborations usually emerged through old-fashioned networking: a chance meeting over lunch at conference, an introduction from a friend, an interesting article shared via a social network.

But Levine, assistant professor of government and a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, imagined a better way for potential collaborators to find each other that could yield more productive partnerships. Such a platform didn’t exist, so he created one.

Last week, Levine and co-founders Jake Bowers from the University of Illinois and Donald P. Green from Columbia University launched Research4Impact (r4i), a networking site that connects people from the academic, nonprofit and government sectors who are interested in collaborating.

“Think of r4i as a cross between Match.com and LinkedIn for academics, nonprofits and those working in the governmental sector,” said Levine. “These groups often share a desire to use evidence and data to help achieve their goals, and in many cases the topics they’re interested in overlap. We’ve known for a long time that there is demand for collaboration across these spaces.”

What’s been missing, until now, is an easy way for potential collaborators to find each other. Like other social networking sites, r4i begins when you create a profile that tells others about your interests. You can offer an overview of your past work, your current research goals and the type of collaboration you are seeking. From there, you can search the site for others who share your interests and introduce yourself.

Feeling shy? R4i provides a “Board of Matchmakers” that actively reads profiles and reaches out to members to make introductions and suggest possible matches – a virtual group of research wing-men and wing-women ready to help grease the wheels.

While r4i was initially designed for political scientists, economists, policy analysts, nonprofit leaders and others working on pressing problems in the public and private spheres, Levine says the model is easily expandable to other fields: “It’s a great tool for anyone interested in working with others outside their organization, discipline or comfort zone.”

Levine’s commitment to facilitating such collaborations is no surprise given his research and teaching focus. His work in Cornell’s Department of Government focuses on political communication, and as an Atkinson Center humanities, social sciences and arts fellow he has established collaborations with organizations including environmental groups based in Washington, D.C., and Boston. Funding the site was a collaborative process, too.

“At various conferences over the past year I’ve been approached by many people interested in how I initiated partnerships with nonprofits. That was the initial spark that inspired me to bring people together in a workshop setting,” he said. “Along with Jake and Don we then proposed the idea to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and they agreed to fund an in-person event in D.C. but also encouraged us to explore ways for these interactions to take place online.”

From there, Levine secured additional sponsors, including the Skoll Global Threats Fund and Surface 51, a web development firm based in Champaign, Illinois, that agreed to build the site in what seemed like an impossible timeframe: less than two months.

“We knew we were on to something when we started shopping the idea around and it generated excitement with nearly everyone we approached,” said Levine.

On Jan. 30, more than 100 attendees came together in a packed room to preview r4i, participate in workshops and provide feedback at an event at the National Press Club in D.C. That same group has since played a crucial role in helping the team beta test the site and troubleshoot issues prior to last week’s launch.

“The old ways of connecting were often one-sided and only available to a select group of people,” Levine said. “Our hope is to democratize collaboration, making it easier and more effective. Ultimately, these collaborations can answer important questions facing society and improve our quality of life.”

Kate Frazer is a freelance journalist working with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.


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