A Foundation to Build Upon

Foundation Relations team helps faculty thrive by securing research funding from private sources

Sarah Fodor is fluent in the language of foundations, a skill that can require determining how best to communicate with any one of 100,000 or so private funders, each with its own mission, priorities, and processes.

“The foundation sector is vast and highly competitive, which is why it’s so important for our team to build lasting relationships between Northwestern and private funding sources,” says Fodor, executive director of foundation relations and corporate engagement. “A faculty member may ever only interact with a single foundation once in their career, and our team’s institutional knowledge can make the difference when submitting a successful proposal. We want the top national foundations, like W.T. Grant, Keck, Mellon, Packard, Spencer and others to view Northwestern as a preferred partner based on the quality of our proposals and other interactions.”

In 2018, Fodor and a team of four directors and one program assistant played a substantial role in developing nearly 60 $100,000-plus research proposals from every school and unit across Northwestern. The resulting funding commitment from the team’s efforts last year resulted in more than $50 million in private foundation funding. The University regularly submits more than 300 such proposals and receives more than 100 private foundation grants each year.

The team’s involvement can range from a simple proofread of a proposal, to providing substantive and editorial feedback on as many as two dozen drafts.

As a consulting rather than compliance office, Foundation Relations learns as much as it can about a faculty member’s research to properly highlight aspects of the work that will be most compelling to funders. Translating research into lay terms can be a challenge; however, Fodor says the benefit of doing it well is often substantial.

Helping faculty navigate important differences between foundations, sharing successful proposals from previous years, and setting the right tone when writing, the Foundation Relations staff — four of whom have doctoral degrees — provide strategic advice on proposal development, serving as “educated lay readers” with academic expertise, similar to foundation program staff. All proposals submitted to private foundations from the Northwestern research community are tracked as part of the office’s responsibility for managing these relationships, as well as for keeping the president, provost, deans, and other University leaders well informed.

The team also conducts numerous workshops and networking luncheons throughout the year, each focused on a single foundation or funding type.

“We typically play a bit of a matchmaker role by connecting private professional foundations with faculty members,” Fodor says. “The services we provide to faculty range from identifying funding opportunities to editing proposals and post-award communications.”

The diverse world of foundations results in variable communications strategies, says Fodor. Some foundations really value contact with a university president; some are willing to be approached by faculty who think they have a good match for a foundation program, and others very specifically do not want individual principal investigators to contact them personally, preferring that a written proposal make the case for funding. Fodor’s team can advise on those nuances.

“The idea of ‘the match’ is key,” she says, “as it optimizes faculty time and opportunity by aligning each project with the right potential funder.” This means that individual proposals should be tailored to a specific foundation.

Faculty appreciate the support and expertise. “Foundation Relation’s attention to language was especially important in helping me convey my scientific objectives in a clear manner,” says Neil Kelleher, molecular biosciences, chemistry, and director of Northwestern Proteomics, who has achieved numerous foundation successes, including a W. M. Keck grant in 2012 and Sherman Fairchild Foundation award in 2014. “I recall being initially surprised by how deep the team would go to understand my research and make contextual revisions. They didn’t just help me submit the proposals; they submitted them with me.”

Private foundations typically want to fill a gap in research discovery, and so they rarely fund the same type of projects as the federal government. Many specifically fund early career scientists to help pave the way toward federal funding. Others make no such career stage distinctions, instead focusing on proposals from any source that will help them achieve their mission-oriented goals.

Northwestern’s successful engagements with foundations have included numerous Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards, most recently won by Panagiotis “Panos” Ntziachristos, biochemistry and molecular genetics. Simone Ispa-Landa, human development and social policy, was named a 2018 William T. Grant Scholar, and Arthur Prindle, biochemistry and molecular genetics, earned a Packard Fellowship. Prindle was one of just 18 scientists across the globe recognized by Packard in 2018 for pursuit of scientific discovery.

“One of the amazing aspects of this award is the freedom provided by the foundation — my lab can explore new directions of research that might be considered too risky or preliminary by other funding agencies,” Prindle says.

Prindle’s laboratory aims to understand and engineer collective behaviors in communities of bacteria. While it’s been known for some time that most bacteria reside in multicellular structures called biofilms, most bacterial research is still performed on domesticated lab strains that are not arranged this way.

For Ispa-Landa, being one of six early career researchers in the United States to receive the William T. Grant honor allows her to investigate how school discipline can be modified to reduce racial inequality and be more developmentally appropriate for adolescents.

Fodor and her team consider it a “privilege” to help faculty craft these proposals and manage related events, such as site visits. “Every grant that we submit contributes to the overall relationship Northwestern has with a given foundation, while also further elevating the exceptional reputation of our thriving research community,” says Fodor.

By Roger AndersonJune 14, 2019
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