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Section 1:  Overview

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What is formative research?
What do you want to know?
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How to use this manual
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The AIDS epidemic has been around for almost 20 years now, and prevention efforts have been around nearly as long. Over time, service providers and researchers have learned what it takes to help prevent HIV infections in at-risk populations. It has been shown that programs need to take place in different places besides schools and health clinics and address multiple needs besides simply using condoms and clean needles.

Agencies often know what to do, but need to understand the best way to do it. And as the epidemic changes and shifts into different populations, agencies need to understand if what they’re doing still works for those at greatest risk. That’s where research fits in.

In the past few years, AIDS service organizations have become much more comfortable with the idea of research, and many agencies have conducted evaluations of their programs. But research is too often seen as a “top-down” process. Funders require agencies to “prove” that their programs are effective, so agencies dutifully, if resentfully, conduct evaluations. Surveys are designed, data collected, pie charts drawn, reports written.

This manual grew from the idea that there is a need to reposition research as a tool that can actually benefit service providers, not just drain their resources. Formative research can fill that role.This manual will define what formative research is, and show why it is helpful for AIDS prevention programs. Using case studies from actual programs throughout California, we hope to demonstrate how formative research is taking place every day in every agency working in the field. We hope to document the value of taking the time to step back and ask questions, and show how this can benefit both programs and staff.

This is not a step-by-step workbook that will tell agencies how to conduct formative research. It will, however, give agencies an understanding of what they can do, and a basic understanding of the steps needed. Each chapter includes either Pointers on the best ways to use the tools and pitfalls to watch out for or/and Examples such as sample focus group questions. At the end of the chapters is a Resource section that lists helpful articles and books as well as people and agencies that specialize in conducting research or providing assistance.

Most agencies are strapped for time and money, often seemingly fighting an uphill battle in the struggle to reduce new HIV infections. With this manual we hope to begin a process where agencies, funders, researchers and policy makers can agree that, at this stage of the epidemic, it is necessary to make time for and support formative evaluation.

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Good Questions, Better Answers --  1998 California Department of Health Services and Northern California Grantmakers AIDS Task Force  -- http://www.goodquestions.com