Why might funders consider supporting general operations?

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations reports that general operating support is the hardest funding to secure. Yet, partnerships report that it is often the most critical.

Launching and maintaining RPPs requires both sides of the partnership to learn new skills and to expand their capacities. There will be a learning curve in turning policy and practice priorities into researchable questions, negotiating roles and responsibilities, translating the research into clear and actionable steps, and maintaining trust even when the research findings are negative. Funders can build the capacity of RPPs by providing some funds for relationship-building activities, training, coordination, and communications. Further, most RPPs need time to produce useful research products and develop a track record with practitioners. The time and effort required to set up the infrastructure and build relationships mean that new RPPs may need a year or two to produce meaningful products. Ruth Turley (founder of the Houston Education Research Consortium) recalls, “That first year took a lot of funding, and though we made huge progress—in creating an MOU, setting up the database, building relationships-we had nothing tangible to show for it. We had to make the case for why not having research projects was not necessarily a bad thing” As this example demonstrates, the process of developing and maintaining an infrastructure for the partnership can be resource-intensive and require support beyond the funds allocated to discrete research projects. Thus it’s important for funders to be cognizant of the time it takes to lay the groundwork for a solid and sustainable RPP and not to expect research findings or immediate results from a new partnership.

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What other aspects of research-practice partnerships are important to support?

While all RPPs seek sustained investments, there are particular areas of need that funders might address:

  • Relatively little funding is allocated to building the research capacity of partnerships in child welfare, juvenile justice and children’s mental health. Most funding is tied to specific program initiatives, and funding for research doesn’t include dollars to support the early research activities needed to build a research-practice partnership. In an era when programs are asked to adopt evidence-based models, funding for data infrastructure and administrative operations are needed to enable RPPs to take root. Palinkas, Short, & Wong (2015) relayed that the director of the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center (CASRC) at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, in partnership with county-level child welfare and child mental health service systems, budgeted a full-time position at the mental health agency to support research-related activities. Relationship maintenance is an essential investment, but projects rarely have funding to cover relationship-building activities, particularly between projects. While foundations might fill some of the gap, universities and agency partners can also be encouraged to provide seed money and staff time to cover the essential work of relationship maintenance, such as long-term engagement and sustained presence of researchers, face-to-face meetings, and staff time for coordinating across and between projects (Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013).
  • Communication and engagement are also areas that can be difficult to fund. Local funders can be especially helpful in this vein as they are often interested in projects that build capacity in their own backyards and in work that demonstrates effectiveness in improving outcomes for local populations. Community outreach workshops, events for sharing research findings with community stakeholders, and other forms of communication to disseminate research findings in accessible ways can be mutually beneficial for the RPP’s ongoing work and for the local funder interested in community impact.
  • The private sector is often more nimble than their public sector counterparts. Public sector bureaucracy sometimes slows down an agency’s ability to take up available funding or act nimbly in the start-up phase. To get partnerships up and running, funding partners can fill the start-up gap with the expectation that agencies will cover the ongoing maintenance of the partnership. One administrator suggested that this kind of up-front private investment could stimulate more research-practice partnerships, giving them modest but essential support to get up and running. A countering concern is to what extent the researcher’s dependency on the agency for funding threatens the independence of the research and reporting of findings.

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Should the grant be awarded to both partners, the research partners, or practice partners?

An important consideration concerns who will receive the grant, associated funds, and recognition. There are three options: award the grant to the research partner, award the grant to the practice partner, split the award across each partner. It is important to consider how the funding will influence the partnerships power dynamics. Equally important is consideration of how the call for proposals can be structured to support long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between researchers and practitioners. There are also logistical considerations that can make it more or less difficult to receive an award. Given that RPP work is rooted in the notion of “partnership,” funders should consider how grantmaking can empower various stakeholders.

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What types of partnership documentation should funders require?

Funders seeking to support partnerships should seek documentation of strong working relationships or, for newer partnerships, early indicators that the partners will be able to establish those relationships. The aim is to ensure that the research is more than a one-time effort and that it reflects goals of both or all sides of the research-practice partnership. For experienced partnerships, providing evidence of such a working relationship may be relatively easy. Newer partnerships, though, may require additional verification of a working relationship guided by mutual aims. Different funders will require different levels of documentation to establish evidence of the partnership. Such evidence may include: a joint application and collaborative statement; a detailed description of the nature of the partnership; an MOU or signed partnership agreement outlining each partners’ roles and detailing project plans, work activities, communications and engagement strategies, and data archiving plans. Funders may factor in additional considerations, including the commitment of key players to the partnership or giving preference to partners located in close geographic proximity to each other to facilitate collaboration.

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What other information might funders request?

RPPs are concerned with process as much as they are concerned with products, and funders should explicitly champion this important relationship-building aspect of RPP work. Funding requests should outline not just intended products, but also the processes, plans, and engagement strategies related to those products. Additional process considerations that funders might solicit include information about:

  • Mentoring: Arrangements to support research or practice partners in developing skills and professional behaviors needed to develop strong partnerships.
  • Embedded researcher strategies: Formal arrangements to integrate members of the research partner team into the agency setting for the purpose of facilitating joint work. Such arrangements include co-locating research partners in agency settings, arranging for research associates to report directly to agency leadership, and formally employing one or more research team members within the partnering agency.
  • Plans to use the research produced: Evidence of structures or arrangements to facilitate the sharing of research findings with the practice partners. Research findings should be shared in formats that are responsive to practitioners’ needs. RPPs should also offer evidence of strategies to ensure that findings will be used to inform responses to relevant problems of practice.
  • Ownership of research products: Agreements about how research products will be published and branded, and who will own intellectual products derived from the research.

Funders can go still further to ask partners to identify how they will address challenging issues such as negotiation of power imbalances, managing competing demands, and securing general operating support to sustain the partnership.

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What do strong RPP proposals look like?

The examples of funding opportunities featured on this page each delineate a set of selection criteria for supporting research-practice partnership grants. These criteria share several common attributes, and request that applicants’ plans for partnership offer evidence that:

  • The partners are invested in the partnership and are fully committed to engaging in this work
  • The partnership will be long-term and the partners have a plan for the sustainability of the partnership beyond the period of the grant and beyond the involvement of particular individuals
  • The participants on both sides of the partnership have the appropriate credentials and competencies to undertake the work proposed
  • The partners can work together effectively and will actively work to build a deep, trusting relationship over the course of the grant period
  • The partners offer a clear research agenda
  • The research produced will advance existing knowledge
  • The practice organization has a plan for using the research produced
  • The host organization for the grant has sufficient capacity to manage the grant
  • The budget allows for sufficient resources to carry out the work proposed

For ideas of other potential indicators that can be used to evaluate proposals for RPPs, see: Framework for Assessing Research-Practice Partnerships.

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How can funders make the case to their Board to support RPPs?

Funders are encouraged to use multiple strategies when making an internal case to support research-practice partnerships. Some useful strategies include:

  • Assess the landscape of existing work on research-practice partnerships and identify where the foundation can make a valuable contribution to this space (the “value added”). Some funders have opted to support the operations or specific projects of a local RPP and argued that local investments will improve the learning, health, housing, or service opportunities for youth in the funder’s backyard. Others have supported national competitions and have argued for the growth of model partnerships for others to learn from and emulate. Still others have convinced their boards to invest in both local and broader efforts.
  • Articulate how RPPs are uniquely positioned to build on and advance the foundation’s agenda and interests in research, policy, and/or practice. Unlike the use of consultants, research-practice partnerships enable longer-term planning, relationships that benefit both practice organizations and research enterprises, and shore up the organizational infrastructure and capacity of local and state organizations.
  • Fund test-cases of RPPs and leverage their experiences to justify broadening support for RPP work. For example, the Spencer Foundation began its support for RPPs with support for one place-based RPP and gradually expanded the breadth of its support before ultimately establishing a formal grant program.
  • Share success stories of RPPs, how they benefit youth, and offer an analysis of how funder’s investments were critical to achieving those milestones. Strong examples exist of how research-practice partnerships have contributed to sizable and lasting outcomes. Papers by Palinkas and colleagues (2015) and Coburn and colleagues (2013) offer useful starting points.

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