There is a growing demand for better understanding of the link between research, policy and practice in development. This article provides findings from a study that aimed to gain insights into how researchers engage with their non-academic partners. It draws on experiences from the National Centre of Competence in Research North–South programme, a development research network of Swiss, African, Asian and Latin American institutions. Conceptually, this study is concerned with research effectiveness as a means to identify knowledge useful for society. Research can be improved and adapted when monitoring the effects of interactions between researchers and non-academic partners. Therefore, a monitoring and learning approach was chosen. This study reveals researchers' strategies in engaging with non-academic partners and points to framing conditions considered decisive for successful interactions. It concludes that researchers need to systematically analyse the socio-political context in which they intervene. By providing insights from the ground and reflecting on them in the light of the latest theoretical concepts, this article contributes to the emerging literature founded on practice-based experience.