Think like a kindergarten

Chinese lion dancer, surrounded by smoke
‘Lion in the smoke’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

About every six months, someone I know asks me to help them to find funding for their community group / kindergarten / art project. Fundraising is a different process to applying for research funding.

However, thinking about how you fund a community project is a useful way to refresh your thinking about how to attract funding for your research program / centre / institute.

So, in that spirit, here is a new way to look at raising some funds.

First of all, most community projects are looking for an ongoing funding stream, rather than one-off project funding. A modest request might be looking for $120,000 – $180,000 per year, every year, to keep the program running. Often, they will get started with a one-off injection of funds and are looking to move to a continuous, reliable source of funding. This is possible, and very hard work.

Work with the community

Local problems need local solutions. Most community projects are located, by definition, in a community. One of the standard truths for finding long-term solutions is that you need local input to make it stick. You can’t impose solutions from the outside. So, work with the community to build a long-term local base of support. It will be hard for them to put in the time, and you are going to have to work hard to make it work, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Think like a sports club, community orchestra or kindergarten. Think about sausage sizzles, working bees, planning meetings, committee meetings… All of these things need volunteers. Chair, secretary, and treasurer are all volunteer positions that you will need to manage your money. This voluntary labour force can be drawn from your supporters. You need a mailing list, and probably a way to keep in touch with these people on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a Facebook group). This will need a volunteer to coordinate the contact list, too!

This applies to research programs as much as to community projects. Know your community and build support within that community. Draw on them for research subjects, feed back reports on your work. The difference might be that your research support community might be distributed, rather than located in one place; they are bound by a mutual idea, rather than local geography.

Build a calendar of events

Speaking of sausage sizzles and working bees, you probably need to plan a series of fundraising events throughout the year that becomes your organisation’s annual calendar of activities. These are events where your supporters can come together to show their support, bring their friends to have a good night out, and donate large and small amounts to help out. It includes trivia nights, cake stalls, raffles, etc. Try everything. Over time, you will work out what works for your supporters and what doesn’t.

While the events you run for a research program may be different from those for a community group, they serve the same purpose. They provide a way for the people in the research program to come together, network, and talk to you directly. Regular communication and constructive or enjoyable face-to-face time all build lasting, meaningful networks.

Work with business

Local businesses will often provide funding, reduced pricing or non-cash support. National businesses with a local presence (like banks) often have an established system for dealing with funding requests. Banks are particularly keen on this, as they need all the goodwill and good press that they can get. Usually, these funding schemes are looking for a couple of things: evidence of local activity and the involvement of their staff. Given that you are probably looking for volunteers (such as a treasurer), getting to know the staff in businesses (large and small) will come in handy. Your supporter group will probably know a lot of them already, as they live and shop locally.

Your research program may already have a clear industry focus, in which case this advice is redundant. However, some projects – such as those in the arts or humanities –  might have an issue defining who their ‘industry’ is. A literature project, for example, might find that secondary teachers, librarians and bookstores are interested. It is always helpful to understand who will want to understand or implement your research results.

Talk to the government

You currently have support from the local council. Talk to them about putting in a joint funding application for State or Federal funding. Often local councils will have people like me who are experts at finding funding. When you get State government funding, talk to them about putting in a joint funding application for Federal funding. Each level of funding has different responsibilities and different funding schemes. What you need is someone to ‘decode’ each of these levels for you. The best person to do that is someone from government who is already on board.

This advice translates directly to research funding. Governments deal with a myriad of problems, and their efforts are generally mirrored by researchers, who work on the same problems at (usually) more abstract levels. Find the section of government that corresponds to your area of research, then work with them to connect with your community, industry, and other levels of government.

Find a patron

Ideally, you want to find someone who knows someone, can introduce you to someone, loves this idea so much that they are willing to invest $60,000 per year every year for the next five years (and whose accountant says that they need a tax deduction). Their value will go far beyond the funding that they can donate. The connections that they provide will be as valuable as any donation. Margaret Carnegie, for example, would do this in the Australian art world. She would provide support and she would organise her friends to provide support, too. In this respect, there isn’t much difference between a trivia night at the local pub and a benefit dinner at the Hyatt, besides for the income of the people attending.

Patronage is not a great model for research funding. I think that it draws people away from the rigour of double-blind peer review. However, a patron that can open doors to industry is a different matter altogether. Someone who has a lot of experience in your industry sector can provide a clear, confident sounding-board. They can help you to establish an influential steering committee and keep your project grounded.

Go national

Philanthropic organisations often want to fund something that will have impact beyond a local community or a single project, so a national group is often much more attractive than a State-based or local group. This will also give you more impact when you want to talk to international partners.

The corollary for research projects is to move from a national to an international level. At first glance, you might feel that your research is already international. You are publishing in international journals and travelling to conferences overseas.

However, are you drawing your research subjects from a local, a national or an international cohort? Are your research partners at your own university, nearby universities or overseas universities? Aim to expand your research if you can.

Run a sausage sizzle

In Australia, Bunnings have a great system for setting up sausage sizzles in front of their stores on weekends. They can advise you if you are eligible, how to get organised, and plug you into their calendar (there is a waiting list). This is a significant source of funding for small community groups.

I don’t understand why more groups don’t do this. A good day can bring in $7,000. This is all untied, discretionary funding. You can spend it on any reasonable research expense. No need for a final report, no limits on how you spend it. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Don’t wear yourself out

I’m a bit worried when people put their own savings into a project to get it started. It means that they are personally vulnerable at the very time that they are trying to get a shaky program onto solid footing. It is always important that community groups build a strong committee, with a clear line of succession in case the leader gets sick. Community projects can eat people alive if they aren’t careful. This sort of preparation will also come in handy when you apply for funding, as all funding sources will want to know that the program has a clear, effective management group.

The same advice applies to research programs. Don’t invest your own funds. Doubly so in the case of research projects, as it can create strange conflict-of-interest problems. Establish a strong management group and understand what you will do if a key person can’t continue. It may never happen, but it doesn’t hurt to think about it.

That’s about it. I’m exhausted just thinking about all the work involved in running a community group. Research programs seem so much simpler. Of course, they have their own complexities. If they didn’t, we’d have nothing to write about.


  1. Melissa wrote [on Facebook]: “Safeway also do the barbecues these days. Worth asking at your local store. I believe you have to buy all food from Safeway, which reduces profit margins if you otherwise manage to get it donated, but it’s another avenue.”


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