Who to apply to for research funding

The reason you are applying for funding is to get the resources to achieve your research goals. Now that you know what you want to achieve, you can start to investigate who might be interested in funding that research.

It may be that no single funder is going to be interested in your whole program of research.

An agency like SSHRC (in Canada) or ESRC or AHRC (in UK) may be most interested in work that makes a significant contribution to the advancement of scholarly debates (while also having a wider impact, perhaps).

Other organizations may not care much about that aspect of your work, as long as you are making a significant contribution to how the community they serve understands an issue, does their work, or whatever.

Matching objectives

They key to finding an appropriate funder (or funders) is to be clear about your objectives.

When looking at a particular organization or funding program, you want to examine both the mandate of the organization and the objectives of the particular program. Identify where your objectives and theirs overlap.

This will help you decide what part of your overall research program this organization might fund. It will also give you important clues as to how to present your proposal.

An example

A year or so ago, I worked with a researcher, let’s call him D,  on a grant proposal for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The rules about the eligibility of health research had recently been tightened up. A program officer at SSHRC indicated that, based on the summary in his Intent to Apply form, D’s research was ineligible and should be submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Since I don’t write detective novels (as my PhD supervisor once reminded me), I’ll tell you the ending now: he did get the project accepted as eligible and got it funded. Here’s how:

First we identified the objectives of this project. It was true that the overall objectives of D’s research program were to improve the health of a particular population. CIHR’s mandate is to fund research that leads to improved health. He didn’t quibble with that. And he knew he would go to CIHR for funding in the future.

However, one piece of that bigger program was figuring out how we influence health behaviours in this population. This piece was more about psychology than health. D thought that role models might be important and he had done some preliminary research that supported this hypothesis but it needed further investigation. About 99% of all psychological research on role models is on children. He is working with older adults.

Although D eventually wanted to use the outcomes of his work on role models in older adults to inform his research on healthy lifestyles for older adults, the objectives of this particular project were to advance knowledge of role models. Does role modelling work in this age-group? Or do adults respond to exemplary behaviour in others differently?

Clarifying the objectives convinced the program officer that the project was eligible. Focusing the proposal on those objectives and how they would contribute to the advancement of knowledge in psychology convinced the peer review adjudication committee that the project was worthy of funding.

Moving beyond the obvious funders

It is easy to be pessimistic about the funding possibilities. Government agencies have had their funding frozen or cut. Foundations have been hit hard by the economic situation. Non-profit organizations also struggle to get funding for their programs.

Yes, it is difficult to secure funding. But it is even more difficult if you don’t offer a clear explanation of why funding your research will enable the funder to achieve their objectives and fulfill their mandate.

If your objectives include improving practice in a particular field, then organizations working in that field might be willing to fund part of your research, perhaps as part of a bigger project of theirs. Another client of mine has had success getting professional organizations and employers to fund her research on women in a particular non-traditional occupation, for example.

Getting this kind of funding is not as simple as sending in an application, though. Building relationships with people and organizations that share some of your objectives can be productive in many ways, including opening up sources of funding. Working with these people regularly will also help you clarify what parts of your research are useful to them.

Building relationships takes time. And it’s a two-way process. If you appear to be in it just for what you can get out of it, you are going to find it pretty tough.

But my university only cares about …

There may be good reasons why your university wants you to apply for money from particular funders.

For example, in Canada certain institutional funds are allocated based on a formula that includes the amount of funding secured by individual researchers from SSHRC, CIHR, and NSERC.

That said, the university wants you to do research. Any funds you secure from external sources to do that research contributes to both the overall income of the university and improves your ability to do research.

The VP Research, research administrators, and others also know that securing funding from one source increases your chances of securing funding from other sources. That relationship is not direct but it does exist.

The relationships that your external funding is based on may be important to the university, too.

I can help

The only reason D had to break his objectives down in the way we did was the policy decisions of the people who set up the government funding agencies. Most of us ignore boundaries until we bump right into them and someone asks us for our passport.

Your job is to do your research. Think big thoughts. Figure out what data you need to confirm (or disprove) your hypotheses. etc.

Your research seems to be all interconnected. You see the connections and how figuring out this bit will also contribute to that bit. You don’t want to pull the parts apart.

My strengths are in the big picture stuff, and seeing those external structures. I can help you articulate the objectives and figure out who might be interested in specific bits of the whole thing. I can help you frame a proposal for a particular funder in ways that make sense for you, too.

The best place to start is with a 1-hour conversation for $150 CDN* (I call this coaching, but you can call it whatever you like).

* The Canadian dollar is strong right now. That means it’ll be a bit more than $150 US, and something like £90 GBP. If you would prefer not to use PayPal, I can accept cheques and bank transfers in Canadian dollars or British pounds. Contact me to arrange something.


  1. I second Jo’s advice to seek researchers other than the big 3 in Canada institutions do receive allocations of other funds based in part on their success in SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR, but institutions are also interested in diversifying their funding base and seeking funds from provnicial, NGO, industry and international sources. One way we have used to maximize research funding is to support collaborations beytween researchers and community/NGO agencies. The latter have access to a diverse pool of funding that researchers cannot apply for. Its great to see a researcher secure research funds for a project that has a partner funded by alternative, often operating funds. Both can hire and train graduate students and at the end of the day that is one of the drivers (not the only one) of academic research.