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Part 4: Assessing needs

Your step-by-step guide to winning research funding – by Abby Day

Understanding needs

To understand a potential partner, we must understand their needs. Readers of this series will know by now that successful research relationships are symbiotic, satisfying the objectives and needs of both funder and researcher. Too often, prospective researchers jump into the application process without assessing why the funder might need that particular piece of research. Ultimately, researchers will be disappointed to find that their needs and the funders' do not match.

Funders are clear about their requirements, but many researchers still choose to ignore them. One wonders why the Arts and Humanities Council ever receive inappropriate applications when their needs could not be clearer:

"Your application will be considered eligible for support if: the research itself complies with the Board's definition of research; and its subject matter falls within the remit of the Board".

The challenge, to paraphrase the goal of sociology, is to accept that that is what the funder says, but what do they really mean?

We explored in the previous instalment ways to identify potential partners. Here, we look at how to read between the lines and discover what it is the funder really wants.

Stakeholder analysis

Any prospective researcher needs to recognize that there are many different groups involved in what may appear to be a single funding organization. Every organization, of any kind, has a hierarchy of relationships, both internal and external.

Research Councils, for example, have multiple stakeholders to satisfy. These include the:

  • academic researchers and students they fund
  • users of their research
  • policy makers – the funding bodies' own funding decision makers
  • media and wider public.

The easiest way to find out about the councils' stakeholders is to read their strategic plans, readily accessible on the Web. Most plans clearly express the corporate aims and objectives designed to meet the aspirations, requirements and needs of those multiple stakeholders. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), for example, provides useful insights into its wider community as this extract from its mission statement, below, illustrates:

The Economic and Social Research Council's Role is to:

  • promote and support, by any means, high quality basic, strategic and applied research and related postgraduate training in the social sciences
  • advance knowledge and provide trained social scientists who meet the needs of users and beneficiaries, thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom, the effectiveness of public services and policy, and the quality of life
  • provide advice on, and disseminate knowledge and promote public understanding of the social sciences.

ESRC's aims and objectives are set out in their Strategic Plan. The four core strategic objectives are to:

  1. focus social sciences research on scientific and national priorities
  2. enhance the capacity for the highest quality in social science research
  3. increase the impact of ESRC's research on policy and practice
  4. deliver ESRC's activities effectively and efficiently.

By conducting a stakeholder analysis, the researcher makes an important shift from looking at the work purely from an individual or even an institution's point of view to seeing the work through the funder's eyes. Funders must look at the researcher as a member in a community; researchers must also see themselves in that broader context.

How can your research help the funder meet its aims?

To meet the funder's needs and the needs of its stakeholders, the research must reflect the aims of both the specific scheme within which an award is being sought, as well as the wider strategic aims of the funder. Commitment to the entire programme and its objectives and all those involved is a critical consideration. Knowing this and articulating it may make the final difference between equal, alpha graded applications.

This is something many people ignore, concentrating instead on how their project may enhance their own work or reputation but not how it may contribute to the programme as a whole.

It is not just research councils which have stakeholders, of course. Private sector organizations also have multiple stakeholders; including shareholders, staff, customers, the media, industry groups, legal and regulatory bodies, potential employees, pension fund investors and competitors.

Charities have stakeholders as well, including their research communities, users of the research, staff and trustees. One of the most important stakeholders to a charity may well be dead! This illustrates a major difference between charities and research councils or the private sector. Charities may have a unique bias towards their history and ethos. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) - the largest single funder of social sciences research outside the research councils – is firmly rooted in its original mission. Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker, was concerned about housing conditions and poverty and decided to fund research into the underlying causes and remedies. That vision has driven the Foundation's themes ever since 1904 and influences its selection of trustees from the Society of Friends network.

It is wholly devoted to useful outputs and outcomes, making it a poor choice for a researcher aligned to theoretical or purely analytical research. Their website has a useful list of what they do and do not fund:

Other major charities, such as the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust are clear about their history, their values and how this links to their current priorities.

Knowing their needs before they do

As we discussed in the previous instalment, it is sometimes better to be proactive and anticipate a funder's needs.

Academic researchers who want to change the way organizations behave will need to find them where their members meet, such as trade exhibitions or conferences, and share their ideas and problems. From spotting the need there arises an action to follow, perhaps a discussion that may begin as simply as "Can I talk to you?".

Meeting funders at conferences and seminars is an effective way to begin assessing their needs. One research manager I interviewed described this as "reading between the lines". Information days, seminars, or conferences, offer good opportunities to talk with prospective funders and discover the nuances in the official regulations. Talking to a programme director, for example, may reveal more about what is being sought than the public guidelines can possibly cover.

Getting to know funders in an informal setting can help build a rich picture of their needs, and also their current position. The organization may be coming to the end of its financial year, for example, and certain programmes may be oversubscribed, while other programmes have not yet spent their budget and need to do so to justify their existence.

Successful researchers I interviewed were notably relaxed about creating and maintaining informal relationships with their funders. They, and the funding agencies I interviewed, emphasized that there is no better way to assess someone's needs than to talk to them.

Talk to them!

Everyone from the Leverhulme Trust to the ESRC to the local representative office for the European Union has said the same thing without exception: "Tell your readers that they can always talk to us".

Many new researchers resist that, possibly through fear or natural reticence, and a desire not to seem "pushy". Another way to look at that reticence, however, is to see it as a touch arrogant, as if researchers' own ideas and reputations are sufficient reasons for a funder to clamour to work with them

Who should you talk to? This will vary amongst organizations, but you should be able to find a name aligned to a project or programme on the funder's guidance notes or website. Start with them. If they're not the right person, they will tell you who is.

In the private sector, it will be a matter of getting to know the organization, as there is unlikely to be a formal section on the website for researchers. Going to a conference, as discussed earlier, is a good idea. When you find someone who seems to be in the area of interest and exchange business cards (and, yes, if you are in the business of attracting corporate partners you will need a business card!). Then, follow through. Telephone them. If they do not return the call, phone them again. Send them an e-mail. Ask them for an appointment. Keep trying!

Try to find someone, initially, at a low level in the organization. Don't expect to go directly to the chief executive or head of research. One experienced researcher told me that it is often better to "go in via a junior who can show you around rather than straight to the top when you might make mistakes. Don't go in cold". Over time, through building up experience and relationships, you won't have to "go in cold". People will come to you.

Finally, to really meet someone's needs, something must happen. Many academics find this part of the process excruciatingly difficult.

"I think it's called closing", said one researcher. Somewhere along the way someone has to bring the discussion to a conclusion: As the same researcher noted:

"Academics are used to having long, interesting discussions that don't always end. They need to learn how to leave with something defined. That's often an agreement to put some idea together and get back. Research experience helps: it's a matter of writing to them, following up, making phone calls – pinning them down!"

This exclusive series, written by Abby Day, is based on her book, Winning Research Funding, published by Gower/Ashgate, 2003.