By Petra Lundgren
How do funders think about investing in research that is intended to lead to change?
This blog post is written from the perspective of a research funder. More specifically it is based on reflections and lessons learned during five years managing and directing strategic research programs at a not-for-profit foundation, investing in science that would benefit the health and resilience of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Our funding mandate was to include research in a larger body of work towards a broader vision of change. This therefore provided the basis of my work and helped me shape the view that the funder has a big and critical role to play.
In the research that my organisation funded, it was important to both define and deliver impact beyond that of classic academic achievement. This requires broader engagement, consultation and co-design considerations by funders and researchers alike.
In particular, addressing multifaceted challenges that deliver impact to society, the economy, the environment, and culture is complex, both to design as well as in its delivery. As a funder, if you want to ensure your funding has a clear pathway to impact, you need to design for impact from the very start. The benefit of being the source of the funding is that you can write the rules of engagement and you have a lot of influence over how programs are designed and delivered.
My key reflections and learnings as a funder can be encapsulated as follows:
- Be strategic about what you fund – if you want to invest in change, then design for change.
- You make the rules – make the design process compulsory.
- Change is driven by communities and civil society; hence their voices and representation need to be put firmly into the pathway to impact planning of any research program that aspires to have impact beyond scientific discovery.
- Knowing who the influencers are (those who are likely to drive change) is critical. There is no point in funding the development of a solution that needs a policy change, unless the policy maker is part of the journey.
- Be inclusive in your stakeholder mapping and don’t shy away from opposing views; consensus is not a realistic goal.
- Don’t limit your funding to just the research. Instead, fund a team that spans the entire pathway to impact and never underestimate the need for communication tools and engagement tools, as well as the need to put money towards community and stakeholder activities, such as time, design and dissemination input, and thought leadership.
- Use program management tools, such as theory of change and program logic, and invest in developing a proper monitoring and evaluation framework. Although not used often in research, these tools are extremely helpful as they force everyone to focus on the end game rather than their own, often quite specific, research field.
- Sometimes the best solution is not the most obvious one, so be prepared to change your approach and involve other disciplines and researchers. In addition, be prepared to let some ideas and solutions go, even if they seemed right at the start.
- Don’t fund a single solution, no matter how compelling it sounds at the start.
- The best laid plans do not guarantee a successful outcome, so if impact is the driver, be prepared to stay involved.
Investing in change goes beyond investing in research, it is more holistic than that. It also needs actual program management, so be prepared to include that in the overall cost of the project or to stay involved to provide that service through your organisation. While there is nothing as satisfying as assembling, funding and driving a diverse team towards success and true impact, don’t expect it to be easy!
I would be interested to hear from other funders investing in change. Do these lessons resonate? It would also be interesting to hear from researchers and research leaders seeking to make change happen. Are there other things that you would like funders to do? Do you see problems associated with any of my suggestions and, if so, how would you deal with them?
Biography: Petra Lundgren PhD is an Innovation Broker at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She brings together relevant disciplinary research capabilities from across the university and beyond to help shape major transdisciplinary research collaborations to solve global challenges, transform societies and attract partner investment.