Attracting External Research Funding


  • Getting external funds is not a quick and easy process.
  • A lot of lead time for planning, for establishing research credentials and rapport with funding sources is necessary.
  • It takes time, energy and courage. 
  • There are inevitable failures and they are difficult not to take personally. However persistence pays off. 
  • Remember to ask for advice and support from your colleagues and the Research Grants and Development Team.

Why do funded research?

Funded research can open up new opportunities in terms of the type of project, the scope of a project and the ability to undertake research that is both person and time intensive or is associated with costly infrastructure. However, navigating the application process including building on initial failure in order to attract funds takes time, energy and above all, courage.

External funds can support a variety of costs directly associated with the work such as equipment, travel and salaries for support staff (Research Assistants, Technical Staff, Research Associates) or student stipends/scholarships or fellowships. Salaries for Chief or Partner Investigators are normally excluded. Additionally, in kind support can provide access to resources not otherwise available such as specialist equipment, databases and specialist staff.

The freedom of research design and 'products' depends on the type of support sought. Thought needs to be given to not only how to do the research but also the use of research outcomes. There may need to be preparedness to give or compromise in order to conform to funding requirements and a need to consider what takes primary importance - the funding or the research.

Attracting external research funds is a craft. It is about:

  • identifying and building relationships with potential funders,
  • who to approach, and 
  • how should this be done

Who to approach

There are numerous funding sources including:

  • local community funds,
  • special purpose foundations, 
  • family sponsored foundations, 
  • national foundations, 
  • government grants, 
  • tenders, 
  • corporate foundations/funders. Doing some homework on potential funders can go a long way.
  • Talk to the UWS Research Grants and Development Team and take advantage of their experience and resources 
  • Use specialised grant registers (such as COS, SPIN and GENIUS). Subscribe to the fortnightly UWS Bulletin distributed by the Research Grants and Development Team. 
  • Look for newspaper advertisements
  • Put your name on any agency lists for individual notification of forthcoming grants 
  • Look at annual reports for an overview of types of grants awarded and amounts on offer 
  • Plan ahead – refer to Funding Calendar

Once potential funding sources have been identified, the real work begins.

Ways to approach a potential funder

The approach can vary a great deal depending on the source and even the project. Formal calls for proposals are common and may be done annually or more often. If this happens a number of strategies can help your submission become a successful one.

  • Talk to the Research Grants and Development Team and take advantage of their resources, knowledge and experience
  • Read application guidelines and then read them again Talk to those who have been funded in similar areas 
  • Ring and discuss your idea with the funder to gain information on the process and introduce the project 
  • Attend any workshops and seminars being conducted by the funder or RDT. 
  • Begin drafting a project description as early as possible. Good applications are often the fourth or fifth draft.

Some funders may give copies of successful proposals which can provide insights into:

  • What has been funded previously
  • The expected format and scope of the project 
  • Formulating appropriate language accepted and understood by the decision-makers

Locating the project in terms of what has already been done is crucial and raises a number of issues that need to be addressed. These cover:

  • Can it be done?
  • Is there a need? 
  • Will the research deliver an outcome? 
  • What research expertise is required? 
  • What do others think?

Depending on the policies of a particular funder it may be possible to speak with the decision-making committee. This can be an invaluable exercise if that funding agency is not used to different types or approaches to research, especially if you are proposing qualitative research which may require convincing arguments concerning for example, sample sizes or validity. It may be the case they do not have the expertise to judge the merits of a particular approach. There may be other agendas, political or otherwise in operation as well.

It is essential to use plain English, define your key terms and cite key international and easily accessible references wherever possible. Jargonistic language is not appreciated.

At other times funding agencies call for Expressions of Interest or invited submissions before asking for a 'full application'. These are usually an outline only of 2 or 3 pages maximum. This may be the first stage in the application process and can involve following strict requirements and guidelines.

If proposals are not called for presenting an outline of your idea either by mail or in person can be a good way to start. Always present clear, simple ideas, which are both researchable and likely to produce valuable benefits and outcomes from the funder's perspective. The outline should include:

  • any preliminary work and/or data already collected
  • what themes, concerns, topics emerged in the preliminary work 
  • what analytical questions are being pursued 
  • what work has been done already in the area

The outline or other proposal must be accompanied with a track record statement that demonstrates past experience in being able to complete projects on time and within budget. Include:

  • recent publications (generally the last five years only)
  • awards 
  • citations 
  • invited key note addresses 
  • reviews patents 
  • media coverage 
  • any other recognition of your past research activity

It is important to remember that not only are you selling the idea, but also the researcher and/or research team. Ask yourself:

  • What qualities make my work best at what it does?
  • Do I offer something that is not available elsewhere? 
  • What strengths do I, and UWS, have over other competitors? 
  • Are these specific, identifiable and unique capabilities that the funding source can only get from UWS and me?

Answers to these questions should be evident in any oral or paper presentation.

It is critical that the researcher check they are speaking and dealing with the right person in the organisation. The issue of trusting a researcher is central here and any agreements concerning money need to be properly authorised.

Are you unable to attract external funds due to a limited track record and unable to develop a track record without some funding?

This is a common problem typically for early career or emerging researchers. Think about:

  • the possibility of joining a team with an established track record in a related or similar area. Work as part of a team and make use of collective expertise, knowledge and experience. This can be an excellent way of learning and doing funded research and could lead to enduring research relationships with colleagues not only within UWS but elsewhere as well.
  • apply for Early Career Research Grants. Starting with a small project enables you to pilot methods and research tools such as interview structures and developing themes or other types of analytical frameworks. It can also lead to publications and/or other forms of dissemination as a foundation on which other research can be built. 
  • developing a written strategic and planned publications/dissemination program over a period of two to five years, which in the first instance may build on foundation research undertaken in a research higher degree.


Julianne Cheek (2000), 'An untold story? Doing funded qualitative research', in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage, California.

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