BackgroundCommunity organisations and community members are increasingly being involved in health research projects worldwide as part of the engagement movement. Achieving deeper forms of community engagement like partnership demands that decision-making power be shared with community partners. However, how can community partners assess if meaningful engagement and shared decision-making will be possible when approached by prospective research partners? In this paper, we explore how community organisations decide to join health research projects when approached by health researchers.MethodsCase study research was undertaken on a health systems research project in Karnataka, India called Participation for Local Action, which was carried out by local researchers in partnership with the Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhhi Sangha, a community development organisation. In-depth interviews were conducted with the researchers, Sangha leaders and field investigators from their community.ResultsThematic analysis identified two main themes – ‘context’ and ‘deciding to engage’. The Sangha’s experience offers lessons to other community organisations that can help them when deciding to engage with researchers in terms of what features to look for in research partners and in proposed research projects, what requests to make of prospective research partners, and what sorts of outcomes or partnership agreements to accept. These lessons may be especially applicable in contexts where relationships of trust already exist between partners and where they have the skills to lead data collection and analysis.ConclusionsWe hope that this guidance will help empower community organisations to select good research partners and promote more equitable partnerships between community partners and academic researchers.