Advancement/Academic Partnerships: Identifying Areas of Untapped Opportunity

Research Grants: Image of an experiment at a robotics laboratory

Ed Mason, president of EMNR & Associates, is writing this series to assist academic leaders in finding creative strategies to merge public/private funding for existing and new research initiatives. Mason has studied an array of collaborative partnerships between the two offices most focused on external funding (the development office and research & grants), and he will be sharing some of the models he has observed, as well as directions for the future.

We hope you will join us for this innovative series:

Universities are faced with challenges that range from uncertain economic times to dwindling public support and declines in federal research funding allocations. To thrive in the future, all educational institutions are going to need more nimble and flexible planning and execution. As I noted in my previous article, there are a number of innovative models for leveraging donor and foundation support to fund academic research initiatives. What you need to do is have a clear understanding of your present areas of academic strength and be able to identify your best future opportunities to procure external funding for research that matters to private donors and philanthropic entities.

The three-step process I will describe below will assist your institution in speeding up the timeline between strategy and execution, meeting with public/private donors faster, and securing fiscal resources for existing and new programs.

How is This Approach Different from the Conventional Strategic Plan?

Most universities have at least one strategic plan either written or in the process of being revised or developed. Colleges, departments and administrative centers on campus usually have separate strategic or operational plans.

A strategic plan is a document that looks to the future aspirations of the institution and employees.

This three-step process I am about to describe is a specific tool that can be used to assist leadership at your university in allocating fiscal resources to present programs, while scanning future opportunities for growth. It should be utilized in concert with a strategic plan.

A Team Approach for Identifying Strengths

As you approach this three-step process, it is important that the team you assemble to undertake it be composed of each of the groups that are instrumental in working to bring external funding to campus.

The ideal team would be composed of individuals representing the following offices:

  • President
  • Provost
  • Colleges
  • Advancement
  • Research and Sponsored Programs
  • Public and Media Relations
  • Government

One of these offices will need to take responsibility for facilitating and writing the initial report, which will then be shared across campus as well as with external stakeholders. Having that point person or lead will be critical.

A Three-Step Process

Step #1: Identify your strengths

Before you can truly begin to reach out to new external partners, it is crucial to gather these key stakeholders and identify your strengths. Some action items to get everyone on the same page regarding your institutional strengths could include:

  • Reading university documents that highlights successful faculty and programs
  • Doing a walk-about and visit with your administration, faculty and center directors about their programs
  • Observing the most popular courses and professors
  • Analyzing (with assistance from Research and Sponsored Programs and Advancement Office) their respective databases the sources of external funding and awardees

Step #2: Identify current and future societal concerns

By identifying the current and future societal concerns that are of most pressing interest to your current internal and external stakeholders, you are uncovering additional funding opportunities — areas where your institution and donors or philanthropic organization can established a sense of shared mission and shared purpose.

Have your cross-functional administrative team try the following exercises to identify these trends:

  • Put on your “futurist” hat to do an environmental scan of issues/trends that are being discussed in the media
  • Research to ascertain if these trends/issues are being funded by federal or private foundations
  • Identify if current faculty and staff are working on these issues and the type of fiscal support they are receiving

Step #3:  Putting it all together

The findings from the first two steps will assist the leadership team in:

  • Identifying your strongest institutional research and outreach programs
  • Creating an evaluation tool that will assist administrators in making decisions for fiscal allocation
  • Recognizing exceptional faculty that are doing outstanding research and work that has the potential to be funded
  • Developing a strategy to forecast future trends and issues that are aligned with your institution’s academic expertise and skills

This is a process that yields an array of benefits. Not only can you identify those areas where there are untapped opportunities to seek philanthropic support for cutting-edge, societally significant research, but you will have identified new opportunities to recognize and reward faculty and will have identified areas that your instituton can expand in order to remain current, competitive, and socially relevant in the years ahead.

Tips for Keeping This Project Manageable

Of course, this research and environmental scanning and the process for developing this “static” report can look like a daunting task that is being added to everyone’s work burden. Here are some tips for overcoming this impression — and for making this research into areas of strength an effective, ongoing strategy for your university:

  • Develop a short timeline for your first initial report (2-3 months).
  • Focus on the areas where your university is really excelling. This is especially important for smaller universities.
  • Envision the three-step process as a tool that will be used every year to identify new strengths and funding opportunities.
  • Use technology to enhance communication between your offices. If you are the facilitator or individual that is writing the report, use technology-assisted communication to cut down on the number of meetings.
  • Find ways to use analytics and big data to analyze current and future trends of funding for your university.
  • Encourage your colleges, departments, centers and other offices on campus to use the three-step process internally, in analyzing their own strengths.

More About Such Opportunities: A Four-Part Series

This is part of a four-part series from Ed Mason, which addresses:

  • Examples of innovative models for funding academic research with private, philanthropic support. (This was the first article, and you can read it here.
  • A three-step process for identifying areas of strength among your institution’s research activities that are particularly well-suited to partnerships for donor or foundation support. (This is the article you just read.)
  • How to apply a “team science” research model to funding and administering research initiatives. (Forthcoming.)
  • Strategies for bridging the communications gap between development and research offices. (Forthcoming.)



How ready are the deans at your campus to pursue donor support?

Our in-depth guide for deans by Academic Impressions bestseller Jim Langley reviews:

  • How the dean can take a lead role in defining the case for support and identifying inspiring projects defined by specific objectives rather than by categories of need.
  • The respective roles and responsibilities of the dean, faculty, and the college development staff.
  • How deans can work most effectively with the president, the central advancement office, and their development officer.
  • The dean’s specific role in donor stewardship, campaigns, volunteer management, and making the ask.

Learn more about the book here.