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Sustainability Centres Webinar: Finding Centre Funding

Struggling to fund your research centre? This webinar brings together leaders to share top funding tips.

Struggling to fund your research centre? You’re not alone. On July 8, 2016, leaders from more than 30 business sustainability research centres met to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of securing centre funding.

Four panellists with broad experience in attracting centre funds kicked off the conversation:

  • Joe Arvai, Faculty Director, Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

  • Michael Hensen, Director, Social Innovation Centre, and Director, External Research Funding, INSEAD

  • Katie Kross, Managing Director, Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment (EDGE), Fuqua School of Business, Duke University

  • Tim Smith, Director, NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota

Top Funding Tips

Go big with your request.

It can take as much energy to ask for $5K as it does to ask for $50K.

Start strong.

It’s easier to raise funds for a new activity than to maintain existing activities, so fundraise hard at the beginning.

Make the case.

Be clear on your value proposition to companies. Most companies are interested in reputational benefits, peer-to-peer learning, accessing students, and shaping research and teaching.

Have a clear model for action.

Your centre has a “theory of change,” a model for how you seek to achieve your goals. Take time to think through that theory of change. It should be the backbone of all you do.

Choose the right partners.

If you run a corporate council, consider diversifying across sectors to minimize competition, and targeting companies with deep sustainability expertise and enough resources to fund your work. Consider approaching donors that aren’t already tapped by your advancement team (e.g. people who aren’t alumni).

Manage your resources.

Some funding opportunities have intensive application processes and low success rates. Always consider the trade-offs between resources needed to apply, success rate, and alignment with your work.

Scope research collaboratively.

You may have to broaden your research questions to appeal to business. Work closely with your partners to scope topics of mutual interest

Review of Your Funding Options

Most centres have a mixed funding model, including public grants, private donors, and host institution support. Each source has its own pros and cons. Panelists described these funding options:

Private Funds

There are many ways to engage alumni and corporate donors as centre sponsors:

  • Endowments are donations invested to support a centre’s ongoing activities. Ideally, the amount is large enough that interest provides sufficient income and the principal is kept intact. Endowments provide financial security, but as competition increases in the sustainability space, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to secure them.

  • Sponsored events can be a good chance for donors to gain public visibility and have their brand associated with the school. Events can also be used to mobilize your school’s research to donors and other users.

  • Case studies and action research allow researchers to work one-on-one with companies. Corporate partners can identify relevant research questions and provide data access not available through traditional research. But these relationships should be carefully scoped to ensure outputs meet the needs of both parties.

  • Corporate councils allow groups of donors to collaboratively influence research and learn from findings. Councils can provide ongoing revenue and prevent research from being swayed by the interests of a single donor.

Public Grants

A growing number of sustainability-related grants are available. Some are international, while others are national or even more local. Databases such as ResearchProfessional or ResearchConnect can be used to search for grants that align with your activities.

Find additional sources by querying “research funding database” in Google or your preferred search engine. Broaden your search to include topics related to sustainability like (e.g. circular economy). You’ll find more opportunities this way.

University Support

  • Advancement or development departments fundraise for the school. Spend time training the advancement team on what you do and how to sell it, so they can match you with appropriate donors.

  • Some schools may provide centres with operational funding. This amount will likely be negotiated with your dean or department head.

  • Collaborate with researchers outside your centre — at your university or beyond —who have their own funding. If you can find mutual interests, you can leverage their funding. Building a network is worthwhile.

The Golden Question: How to Work Effectively with Private Donors

In the webinar question-and-answer period, panelists and participants discussed best practices for working with private donors. They emphasized that collaborating with business on research projects can have real benefits, opening the door to novel research questions and interesting data.

However, it’s important to structure donor involvement in a way that protects academic freedom. Donor input can be valuable in some areas, but problematic in others. The webinar discussion produced these recommendations for appropriately involving donors.

1. Treat each case on its own. Each donor engagement will have different grey areas and should be considered individually.

2. Communicate early and often with donors. Be clear in discussing both parties’ expectations, and record these expectations in a contract.

3. Enable dialogue, but keep decision-making power. Allow donors to voice their opinions on teaching, research, hiring, or other issues, but don’t give them decision-making power.

4. Develop guidelines. Establish evaluation guidelines in advance, including questions like:

  • What types of issues can donors give input on?

  • What level of decision-making power will donors have?

  • Do the donor’s requests violate academic freedom?

  • Will the resulting research be publishable?

Learn more about the Sustainability Centres Community.

Additional Materials

Members of the Sustainability Centres Community also have access to watch the video and download the slides from the webinar. Contact info@nbs.net for the password.

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    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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