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 decision-making. While research and practice partners understand the value of this work, they must also learn to make the case to funders.

Funders seek investments that make a difference. Consider ways to address their “interest in leverage,” suggests Chris Tebben, former executive director of Grantmakers for Education. “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.” 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 district decisions.

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. Ruth Turley’s (HERC) early experience prompted this advice: “Securing funding first is the best way to go. Having that funding to put on the table in the early stages provides an entrée to approaching a school district.”

The paths to a secure funding portfolio are varied. Not all RPPs start out with secured funding. Sometimes a university provides the start-up funds for office space and salary. In other instances, a foundation provides start-up support, providing lead time for the partnership to get up and running. Several maturing partnerships suggest that new RPPs first make their case to local funders. These funders have a stake in children and youth in their city or region, and may be inclined to invest in a project that directly addresses their local priorities. If local foundations are scarce or focused in other areas, it is possible to appeal to corporate funders interested in place-based impact or to national foundations with interest in local RPPs.

Look to successful, mature RPPs as examples. Their trajectories may prove instructive for newly emerging partnerships.

Who funds RPP efforts?

Public sources represent one area of funding. 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 . Both programs provide funding for developing new partnerships and helping existing partnerships expand.

Other public programs that are not specific to research-practice partnerships may offer funding that is appropriate for communication and capacity-building activities. For example, the district partner may be eligible to apply for public dollars to improve schools; either partner might seek community development funds to conduct parent outreach workshops to share research findings.

Private funding from foundations and other sources may also support the work of RPPs. 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.

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 RPPs’ 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 are good sources of local support. Given their missions to provide wide support to a range of local organizations, their grants may be smaller. Corporations and corporate foundations can be sources of funding, particularly if they are known to support education or are headquartered in places where RPP efforts are underway. Some corporate foundations have deep track records in funding education efforts nationwide.

What should RPPs keep in mind in developing relationships with funders?

The funding process is characterized by relationships and collaboration. Most foundations want to be informed of the successes and struggles of the efforts they invest in. Ongoing communications with funders should bring them along as opportunities and challenges arise. Funders want assurances that proposed outcomes will be achieved, but engaging them in the unfolding work will allow them to learn from the complexities of partnership work and may help guide their future efforts.

It is also important to address issues of alignment. Is the partnership’s focus aligned with the aims of the foundation? If the findings contradict the original theory of change, how would the release of the findings be negotiated? These questions parallel the discussions research and district partners must have about when and how to release findings.

What should RPPs keep in mind in developing relationships with funders?

Funders play a critical role in research–practice partnerships. Consider ways of structuring your support to address a few key issues.

Support general operations. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations reports that general operating support is the hardest funding to come by, and yet is often the most critical. Most RPPs need time to start producing useful research products and developing a track record within a district. The time and effort required to set up databases and build relationships mean that new RPPs need a year or two to produce tangible products. Ruth Turley (HERC) 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.”

Request information on process as well as products. RPPs are concerned with process as much as they are concerned with product. Explicitly champion this important aspect of RPP work, and ask RPPs to describe in proposals and presentations not just their intended products, but also the processes that will yield those products. This will signal your commitment to successful collaboration.

Invest in capacity-building. 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 specifically for this purpose.

Lastly, funders can help grow and sustain RPPs by giving thoughtful consideration to whether they provide funding support to the research team, the district, or both sides. Funding influences power dynamics, and it is important to consider how grants can be structured to support strong, mutually beneficial relationships between researchers and practitioners. Given that RPP work is rooted in the notion of “partnership,” funders should consider how grantmaking can empower various stakeholders.

What are strategies for sustaining funding over time?

Established RPPs affirm that funding remains a challenge. Developing a diversified portfolio, with long- and short-term projects, can be a way to keep the work funded. Many partnerships build support for core activities over time while connecting core functions to project-specific work. Elaine Allensworth from the Chicago Consortium on School Research talks about “productizing” convening and communications work, capturing the costs in project-based funding, and tying those activities to funders’ interests.

Ultimately, RPPs are entrepreneurial endeavors. Leaders will need to make the case for their work. Develop an “elevator pitch” that articulates the added value of a partnership approach and the ways that research impacts policies and programs. Cultivate potential funders, including individual investors. Learn how to blend funds from an array of sources to create a diverse funding portfolio.