Five reasons to ignore the big schemes

Jo + Kerryn, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Pop quiz, peeps. Name a funding agency.

Quick, what’s the first one you thought of?

If you are from the US, you probably said ‘National Science Foundation’. If you are from Europe, you probably said ‘FP7′. In the UK, Canada, or Australia, you probably named one of the national Research Councils.

In each country, there are a handful of funding agencies that tower over the research imagination. Applicants mythologise them. Recipients revere them. Universities lionise them. They dominate the academic funding conversation to such an extent that the names of all other funding sources are drowned out.

In Australia (where I come from), we only talk about two: the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). You might hear some highfalutin’ talk about the Australian Competitive Grants Register (ACGR), and ‘Category 1’ funding, but it’s just code for those two funding agencies.

Don’t believe me? There are almost seventy ‘Category 1’ funding bodies on the Australian Competitive Grants Register. I’ll bet most Australian researchers can’t name another three with any certainty.

The problem with this is that researchers, particularly new researchers, only ever hear about those funding agencies. They never hear about the smaller, more targeted government schemes, funding from state and local government agencies, local or international philanthropic funding agencies, or new possibilities like crowd funding. That’s just crazy!

Here are five good reasons why you should ignore the big schemes and listen for the little ones.

1. More money

Taken collectively, there is a lot more money available in all the funding agencies that you’ve never heard of than in the handful that you have.

Your big national government schemes probably have more money than any individual little scheme. However, there are hundreds of thousands of lesser-known schemes, and only a few of the big government schemes.

The lesser-known schemes can vary tremendously in scope. Some, like the Gates Foundation and Kickstarter, are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars. Small family trusts or local government funds might only have a few hundred thousand to disburse.

In rare cases, these schemes will provide grants of half a million dollars. More likely, though, they will provide smaller grants, around the $5,000 – $50,000 per annum scale. Be careful, though. Some very small schemes have very small grants. I’ve seen philanthropic trusts that offer grants of less than $1,000. That’s probably not worth your time.

2. Less work

Smaller grants are OK, though, if the effort required to win them is much less. A standard ARC project application can run to 100+ pages. I’m yet to see a lesser-known scheme that requires that level of detail. Some do, I’m sure (particularly in the United States). I’ve just not dealt with one yet. Most lesser-known schemes that I’ve dealt with have applications of 15 – 30 pages. Some are as short as 5-10 pages. Check out @bjkraal’s experience with a barely 5-page grant application that had a very speedy process.

Perhaps more importantly, the post-award requirements can be a lot less work (again, your mileage may vary in the United States). Contracts are generally less complex. Audit requirements can often be built into your organisation’s existing audit regime, rather than needing a separate audit. Final reports are often less strenuous.

Sometimes, the requirements are more stringent, but they don’t feel like it because they fit your work better. Lots of philanthropic trusts provide funding for evaluation strategies as part of the project. That’s great! A good evaluation process that runs parallel to your research will make your project much more effective (and the next one potentially that much more competitive).

Again, you need to check before you apply, both with the scheme and with your organisation. Some schemes have unrealistic expectations of what sort of reporting they should expect for the funds that they are disbursing. Occasionally, the issue isn’t with the funding organisation, but with your organisation. If they’ve never dealt with a grant for that funding organisation before, there might be a bit more administrative work to do at your end. This shouldn’t be too complicated, but it’s worth asking before you apply.

3. Sometimes easier to win

Some lesser-known schemes can be very specific in their requirements. This is particularly true for trusts that might have been set up 150 years ago. ‘Fallen women’ isn’t a phrase you are going to see in list of focus areas these days, but it was very popular in the past.

Lots of these schemes are not very well known because they are specific. They might restrict funding to a particular region, social group, or type of problem.

That’s OK, as long as they are funding your particular research problem, the social group you investigate, or you want to do research in that particular region. In fact, it’s great! It’s like someone created a fund just for you. Wouldn’t that be good!

There is another reason that these funds can sometimes be easier to win. Lots of centres and established research groups stick with the well-known funding agencies. They don’t always look at the lesser-known schemes. That leaves them open for people who are looking for them. People who are hungry for funding. People like you.

4. Higher impact

If you find a funding scheme that fits your research quite closely, you will probably have a higher impact when you work with that scheme. That’s because the funders really care about the particular issue you are looking at. They will work with you to get your message out, or to help you find research subjects or to understand their particular interest in the issue. In the best instances, they can become like a collaborating organisation, rather than a standard funding body.

This is true of local government, who want you research to have impact for their area. It is true of some philanthropic funding agencies, who really want to have real-world impact. They really want to attack the root causes of the issues that they care about, and bring about lasting change over time.

I’ve worked with schemes who won’t fund you until they are happy with your dissemination plan because they know that publishing a refereed journal article isn’t going to get the word out very far at all. I’ve seen schemes where the funders are willing to send a representative to your field site to get a better understanding of the issue.

I’ve never heard of any national funding council doing that.

5. Better for your career

Getting a big name grant is excellent for your career. I understand that.

However, I also understand the heartache of working for four – six months on a big name grant application and getting rejected. I understand the damage that failing to secure funding over two or three years can do, both to your spirit and your professional dreams.

If, on the other hand, you can demonstrate that you can win funds from a variety of sources, and use those funds to do good work, then you are in a stronger position. First of all, you are doing more research, often with more variety. Secondly, you have demonstrated that you can manage funded research projects. Finally, and most importantly, it is helping to build your professional confidence. Getting funded, even if it is from a scheme that no-one else has ever heard of, will make you a better researcher.

These lesser-known schemes can be hard to find. There are a bewildering variety of them, all with their own peculiarities. You won’t hear them mentioned in the staff room. You will need to go out and hunt them down. You might need to change your focus slightly to fit what they will fund. In the end, though, you’ll be richer for it.


  1. Hello, thanks for the fresh (for me) perspective on research funding, it is much appreciated. I was wondering if you know where I can find a list of funding bodies in Germany for the physical sciences, or if there is a German equivalent of the Research Whisperer? I am a foreigner abroad and my German is still limited, so tracking these things down is definitely a challenge! Any information would be very much appreciated.

    Cheers, Karl


  2. Interesting thoughts. However if the grants are far too small then the cost associated with the time of the academic and research support staff to develop the bid outweighs the value of the award. My institute is having a hard look at this and may decide its more effective to give the academic the money in the first place if its below a threshold set by the PVC of Research et al.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Phil

      I agree that some grants are far too small to be worth the trouble. Giving the academic the money is an innovative approach – I’d be interested to see how that plays out.

      I think that it would make the academics happy – rather than putting in the application they are being recognised by their university and can get on and do the work.

      There are a couple of things that I’d be interested to know more about as the initiative progresses:

      • How do you work out what the threshold is?
      • Do academics become comfortable with a small level of internal funds, and just stay at that level?
      • How do you deal with two-tiered funding systems, where applicants can openly apply for small amounts and are invited to apply for large amounts? In Australia, a lot of the philanthropic funds work this way. It lowers their risk with new applicants and lets them get to know their applicants before inviting them to apply for the large grants.

      If you are interested, I’d be happy to look at a blog post on this topic. I think that it is a really interesting proposition.



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