What is the funding case for research–practice partnerships?

RPPs attract funders who are interested in supporting the use of research evidence in practice and policy. While individuals who are involved in partnerships understand the value of their work, obtaining support for RPPs requires making the case to funders who may not have the same level of familiarity.

Chris Tebben, former executive director of Grantmakers for Education, suggests that, in general, funders seek investments that can make a difference, and partners should consider ways to address this interest. “The more that RPPs can point to specific ways policies or practices changed as a result of a partnership, the more they can make the case to invest not just in projects, but in the core activities of the partnership itself,” says Tebben. As more funders are drawn to research-informed efforts, a compelling case for funding should articulate how partnership activities beyond the research itself yield better products and inform agency decisions.

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How do new RPPs acquire the funding to start their work?

Developing a funding strategy that fits your partnership’s goals and context is essential. An initial funding opportunity is the usual catalyst for getting a partnership started. Funding can come from the research or agency partner side.

The paths to a secure funding portfolio are varied. Sometimes a university provides the start-up funds for office space and salary. In other instances, a foundation provides start-up support that allows lead time for the partnership to get up and running. Some partnerships are eligible for state or federal funds, particularly if their efforts are tied to professional training and development initiatives or if they can make the case that their research applies directly to outcomes.

Several maturing partnerships suggest that new RPPs first make their case to local funders, especially those that are inclined to invest in a project that directly addresses their local priorities. If local foundations are scarce or are focused in other areas, it is possible to appeal to corporate funders interested in place-based impact or to national foundations with a particular interest in research-practice partnerships.

In general, new partnerships should look to mature RPPs whose funding histories and sources of support may prove instructive.

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Who funds RPP efforts?

Sustaining RPP work is challenging. Funding opportunities vary among the different systems in which RPPs operate. Many RPPs patch their work together on a project-to-project basis with little funding to maintain partnership relationships in between. These funding gaps impact the momentum and growth of the work.

That said, successful RPPs find ways to sustain the work and obtain support from diverse sources.

RPPs might investigate government sources that target research-practice partnerships, such as the US Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences Researcher-Practitioner Partnership program and the National Science Foundation’s STEM-C Partnerships program. At the state level, state agencies may fund research toward the improvement of services. Florida’s Department of Children and Families, for example, has funded research in support of improving child welfare service delivery.

Other public programs that are not specific to research-practice partnerships may offer funding for research projects, communications, or capacity-building activities. For example, the practice partner may be eligible to apply for public dollars to improve services, and either partner might seek community development funds to conduct outreach workshops or share research findings with community stakeholders.

Private funding from foundations and other sources may also support the work of RPPs. Private funders have the advantage of being able to act relatively nimbly. Understanding the diversity in philanthropy is critical in developing strategies to engage private funders. Foundations will think about their philanthropic work differently based on their geographic scope, size, resources, and structure. Broadly, philanthropic organizations fall into several categories: national foundations, local and regional foundations, family foundations, community foundations, and corporate funders. Each of these has structures and goals that shape their grantmaking priorities. Sometimes, private investment can help get partnerships up and running or sustain a partnership until public agencies can catch up and embed some of these partnership maintenance functions in their agencies. One administrator suggested that this kind of upfront private investment could stimulate more of these partnerships, giving them just enough legs to get up and running.

National foundations often have very tightly developed strategies for grantmaking, and sometimes focus a significant portion of their funding on specific projects by-invitation only. Though this may seem to narrow funding prospects, it also presents an opportunity for significant funding if a particular RPP’s work is well-aligned with a national foundation’s goals.

Regional and local funders are often interested in proposals that build capacity in their own backyard, and in work that demonstrates effectiveness in improving outcomes for local populations. In some cases, these outlets may be able to provide the difficult-to-secure core support that many partnerships need. Family foundations can be national or regional in scope, but may have commitments to particular lines of inquiry or work that supports particular populations. If there is alignment, these foundations can be good sources of support over multiple years.

Two additional funding sources are community foundations and corporate funders. Community foundations provide good sources of local support. Given their missions to provide wide support to a range of local organizations, grants may be smaller. Corporations and corporate foundations can be sources of funding, particularly if they are known to support education, youth services or research, or are headquartered in places with existing research-practice partnerships.

Increasingly, there are greater calls for institutional support for this work from academic institutions. On the smaller scale, academic institutions can provide recognition, administrative and communications support, and seed money intended to sustain relationships in between periods of funding. More substantively, some are making the case for bigger investments from academic institutions—using resources to support, promote, and ensure that partnership work can be sustained and has a recognized place within a scholarly institution.

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What does engagement with funders look like?

Like other aspects of partnership work, the funding process is characterized by collaboration and communication. Most foundations, for instance, want to be informed of the successes and challenges of the efforts they invest in. Although funders want assurances that proposed outcomes will be achieved, ongoing communication as the work unfolds through ups and downs allows them to learn from the complexities of the work and may even help guide their expectations and future efforts.

At the same time, as the partnership goes about its work, it is important to address questions of alignment with the funder’s priorities and expectations. For example, if findings contradict the original theory of change, how would communications of the findings be negotiated? Such questions highlight the important role of trust and relationships with the funding organization, and parallel the discussions that research and district partners must have about when and how to release findings.

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How can research institutions help?

The William T. Grant Foundation has established an Institutional Challenge Grant to encourage university-based research institutes, schools, and centers to build sustained research-practice partnerships with public agencies or nonprofit organizations. This challenge has been issued to incentivize institutions to shift their policies and practices to value collaborative research and to build the capacity of researchers to produce relevant work and their partners to use research.

In the spirit of this challenge, academic institutions can be instrumental in establishing a set of strategies to facilitate sustained research collaborations, providing opportunities and resources for researchers to improve partnership skills, and changing incentive and reward systems so that more researchers can pursue this work. These institutional commitments are particularly important for encouraging and enabling early career researchers to undertake partnership work.

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