Reflections on academic fundraising: the art of getting there

By Abel Polese

Fundraising, or grant capture, has become an increasingly established part of a career in the social sciences. Whereas, in the UK this process has become institutionalised in other research systems grant capture remains less central. In this post Abel Polese reflects on his own experiences of academic fundraising and argues that for researchers seeking research funding, failure is relative and that rather than trying to game the system academics should focus on quality. 

Fundraising by numbers

Between September 2018 and April 2019, my team submitted, most to EC calls, 12 funding applications totalling €20m. Of these, only one was funded straight away. Two more, worth €3.9 and €1.5m are first and second on their respective reserve lists, whether they are funded or not is beyond my control. 

In terms of money raised, target amounts can vary a lot, depending on the fundraiser and the research projects involved. But, in percentages, this equates to an 8% success rate, calculated as total applications vs funded ones and 5%, if one compares the amount requested vs the amount received. Are these figures any good?

Success or failure is not absolute

Academic funding is a slow process and the results of funding evaluations can take several months to be published. Over the course of a year you can only submit once to a given scheme, if you miss this one shot for whatever reason you could say you have failed.  

However, to understand if a scheme is viable, or not, you may need at least 2-3 attempts, in practice this can mean 2-3 years.

 In 2011 I spent a whole year writing proposals and collecting rejections. Whereas, one might argue this year was a failure, I did however learn to ‘read’ an evaluation report. The next year I was awarded funding for two projects. Had I stopped after these failures, I would never have gotten there. 

If you had asked me in 2011 and 2012 how successful my fundraising had been my answer would have been different. How then can you tell if your fundraising is effective? Setting objectives and timeframes is key. You may succeed in gaining research funding, but the costs can also be high. The 12 applications made by my team totalled around 12 months of work.

Only you know your costs and what strategy is cost-effective for you.

If your goal is to write good bids then even getting 12 rejections might be worth it, if through this process you expand your network, receive useful feedback and use this ‘failure’ to reflect on your next steps.

Success can ultimately be random 

By the end of 2019, my projects in the reserve list might get funded. Should this happen, my success rate would rise from 5 to 25% (3 out of 12 projects funded) and from 8 to 30% (€6m+ out of €20m requested). However, whether this happens or not does not depend on me, my year could be good or fantastic depending on…well, pure luck – externalities, if you want to sound more professional.

The difference between success and failure can depend on a number of factors. From the mood the evaluator is in when they reach your proposal, to the number of projects submitted for the same call. The higher the number, the more likely it is the highest profile academics in your discipline have applied. Furthermore, if the funders had allocated resources to evaluate 100 projects and received 200, this will inevitably impact the nature of the evaluation taking place. 

By contrast, luck may be on your side when you apply for a scheme that is not popular. My first application to an EU scheme was funded with a score of 82/100, my last received 87/100 and was not even in the reserve list. Likewise, 86/100 meant being in the reserve list in one discipline, 92/100 meant rejection in a different panel. Success in gaining funding is relative.

The art of getting there

To me a good fundraiser is not someone who wins all the time but someone who manages to “get there” most of the time.  

I cannot predict whether my proposal will be funded but I can work hard to frame my idea in an intriguing way, select good partners, work on my creativity and on the presentation and innovativeness of the application. I can also hone my intuition to bet on this or that funding scheme.

When someone asks “what are the chances that we will be funded?” My answer is “I do not know. I cannot guarantee success, but I can promise that the project we submit will be a solid one and usually receives a good score”

This is what I call the art of getting there.

I have heard people say words to the effect of “this scheme has a high success rate, we have higher chances to get funded”. Although technically true, a weak proposal, no matter what the success rate will not get funded. One year the European Commission funded 140 out of 200 proposals in a given scheme. Guess what? I did not get funding, but the same year I was awarded funds from a scheme with 3-5% success rate. 

The art of Staying there

OK, you made it, you are there. Your proposal scored well but did not get funding. What’s next? “Staying there” is a matter of endurance. You need to endure a sufficient number of applications to eventually get funding.

You need to study. What constitutes a high quality proposal rapidly changes. What was innovative or amazing one year can soon become normal. Seek feedback, study successful applications, read between the lines of your evaluation reports. Sometimes a single word can hide a thought like ‘this was complete nonsense’.

Do not over commit. This is hard when you are in demand, but everyone has their limits. The more you take up, the less the time you can devote to a single project. It can be easy to mess up the budget of a proposal by overestimating your capacity to work on several things at the same time.

Be compassionate with yourself. You might need to make a few mistakes and mess up a few projects to understand your limits and how the system works. When this happens, do not despair: mistakes, even large ones, are part of the learning process. They are a way to understand that something in your modus operandi has not worked. Learn to say no, trust people, but test them before giving your full trust on an important task.

Fundraising is becoming increasingly part of academic life and most academics are under pressure to secure external funding. But, for some researchers it is still possible to have a career in social science research with little or no external funding. As long as you can offer some other services to your employer (link to blog on why not to fundraise). But if you think you can learn something, why not try? In a worst case scenario, you will have gained experience and begun to develop an academic network.

Finally, believe in what you do. A rejection is not a failure and depends on so many factors that it is not worth agonising over. Your job is to “get there” and write a good proposal, then “stay there”.

Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of The Scopus Diaries and the (il)logics of academic survivalThe SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.

This post was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog on 19 August 2019

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