Getting funding for participatory research

PIF 4th December 2018

Based on their experience, Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Dr Niamh O’Brien and Dr Melanie Boyce presented some guidance and ideas around getting funding for participatory research projects. Firstly, there are different types of bids:

  • Open tender – A call is put out for research that meets a specific focus and criteria set by the funder. A lot of funders now have expectations around public/patient/service user involvement in the research process (e.g. ESRC and NIHR).
  • Closed tender – There is no national call but particular researchers are invited to do a piece of work for a funder. Often there is already a relationship between the researchers and the funder in these cases.
  • Responsive funding sources – There is a general area of interest (e.g. health and wellbeing) but few specifications so researchers can decide on the focus for the research. These are generally less common.

There are a number of things to consider when looking for funding for participatory research.

  1. Does the funder have a track record of funding participatory research? Funders such as the Big Lottery, AHRC, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have funded participatory research and are therefore more likely to accept and value participatory approaches in future bids. Smaller charities are also often more appreciative of participatory approaches.
  2. Why is participatory research core to your project? Participatory research is on a spectrum – there are many different ways in which people can get involved across the research process: the distinction has been made between participatory research where participants are involved in all stages, and participative research where they are involved in some of the stages but not all – both are valuable and not everything can or should be participatory.
  3. What policies and practices does a participatory approach support? If you can identify the added value of a participatory approach and how it fits in with policies and practices that the funder promotes, then you are building the rationale for the funder. You need to strike a balance between telling the funder what you plan to do and leaving it open for involvement.
  4. What is the timescale for the research? It is important to think about whether genuine participation is realistic. Often funding calls have tight timescales and participant involvement is just a tick box exercise. Don’t underestimate the amount of time that is needed to develop relationships and trust with participants to enable genuine participation.

Niamh shared an example of participatory research commissioned by The National Children’s Bureau where researchers worked with young people to explore the impact that cyber bullying has on young people’s mental health in England. Participatory approaches were unique here as up until this point the literature had been from the perspective of adults. Young people were involved in the design, decision making on methods, analysing data and making recommendations.

Melanie shared an example of an evaluation of an outreach service for women involved in prostitution, which was commissioned by the organisation delivering the service and funded through the National Lottery Women and Girls Initiative. It was unrealistic for researchers to go in as outsiders and work with the clients from the start, but the project is long-term so there is time to build up meaningful relationships and move towards collaborating with the clients and the staff to develop a model for exiting prostitution.

Carol shared an example of a project led by Dr Maritta Törrönen, Marie Curie Individual European Fellow, who has previously presented her research at the PIF on young adults leaving care and transitioning to independent life. The young adults were trained as peer researchers to find out from their peers about what would help to support them. Maritta negotiated access to the young adults for an English case study through Essex County Council, who were extremely supportive throughout.

We then discussed some general tips and thoughts around funding participatory research:

  • The research and involvement needs to be meaningful for the participants, and researchers should be open and honest about what is achievable with the funding available.
  • Everyone should feel included and have a voice, even if their idea is not taken up: expectations about processes and outcomes need to be managed.
  • There are tensions (e.g. in ARU policies) around how people are compensated for their time (e.g. payment/vouchers), so this needs to be thought about in advance.
  • Social media can be a useful tool to keep people involved throughout and after the research.
  • The ideal is for the research question to come from the participants, but in reality the area of research is often pre-set, either by the funder or by the researcher in applying for funding.
  • There are other ways to build inclusion into research processes even if there is a short timescale or other barriers to fully participatory research, such as citizen steering groups.
  • Different roles within the research team need to be defined and transparent to ensure you have the expertise needed to deliver the research in the most effective way.
  • Don’t underestimate the time needed to write a funding proposal, especially when lots of people are involved from the start. A critical read before submitting is highly recommended.
  • Some people won’t want to be involved in academic aspect of the research and those who do will have all sorts of different reasons for getting involved, which needs to be respected.
  • Ethics procedures may be more complex – they may need to be constantly updated as the project changes and ongoing consent processes should be built into long-term projects.
  • With so many people involved there can be internal politics within these projects that need to be managed and mediated. Flexibility is key here.
  • Project endings can be emotional as the research may have personal meanings for people’s lives. How will you celebrate what you have achieved and recognise the contribution of participants and accredit any new skills?

Overall, funders need to be prepared to listen to the voices of people who have direct lived experience of the research area. In order to achieve this, funders may need to move away from being driven by outcomes and widen their understandings of impact.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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