Ethical Considerations for Students Working with Rural Communities and Non-profits

If you are a student contacting staff at a nonprofit organization or conducting in-depth research in rural communities there are several ethical issues for you to consider. In either case you will be asking for time and information from local experts and creating a relationship with them. This relationship has ethical implications based on your level of involvement with your interviewees; your level of involvement with their community; and your research questions, process, and findings. These ethical implications are relevant whether you are simply conducting a short interview or planning to live in a rural community for an extended period of time to conduct your research.

Do as much preparatory research as possible before contacting an organization or community members so you are well prepared for the ensuing discussions. Researching the organization and/or people you want to contact is important to ensure that:

  • You don't waste time by asking questions that can be answered via public information or the internet.
  • You are aware of the organization's culture, environment, and current issues
  • You can ask better questions by being well-informed

For guidelines on contacting rural nonprofit organizations, please see "When Contacting a Nonprofit Organization..."


Interviewing a staff member or volunteer from a nonprofit in a rural community is one level of involvement; a deeper level of involvement is living in and conducting research in that community. Your engagement with a community can have broad implications for the community, which if handled correctly can be mutually beneficial, but if not handled well can lead to conflict in the community or mistrust of future research.

There is a vast amount of literature and web resources for those conducting community-based participatory research. For links to literature and websites on ethical considerations in community-based participatory research, please see "Resources for more information..." The basic concepts of community-based participatory research include that:

  • The research is a direct response to community needs and seeks to develop a process that can help to make changes that improve the lives of people in the community.
  • Local and experiential knowledge is essential to the quality of the research
  • Both the community and researcher are involved in the research and reflection processes
  • Inequalities are attended to by promoting a co-learning and empowering process
  • The research process and outcomes produce knowledge for the community.

As a community-based researcher you will need to be prepared to handle issues that may arise from your research relationship with the community you are working in, including reconciling the research questions you have developed in the halls of academia with those that will benefit the community. You will also need to be aware that ethical problems will shift and change as the project evolves. For guidelines on ethical concerns in community-based participatory research, please see the "Top 10 Ethical Considerations for Students Working with Community-Based Natural Resource Management Organizations."