What are funders looking for?

Open Source Alliance for Open Scholarship
Last updated: Nov 2, 2022

How do funders decide?

Each type of funder has priorities and often a formal process that guides their decision making. Understanding how how funders make these decisions can help a project understand how they fit in. Below, we will unpack our experience of federal funder and private philanthropy decision making processes, and break down how to read a funders website, to demystify this aspect of fundraising.

Federal funding

Some agencies are more formal in their process. E.g., NIH assembles a set of experts and has them make decisions about funding. NSF assembles experts, and asks for their opinion and recommendations, but the NSF teams ultimately make the decision. DOE asks for general expert opinions but often plays a more active role in making decisions, using the expert opinions as inputs. DoE is often less interested in asking for "recommendations" from experts, they only want "information". DARPA program officers have more decision making authority and are more results-driven, less interested in "process".

UK research councils and similar agencies in some other countries are even more expert-dependent than NIH, where program officers are there to facilitate the "expert decision-making process" but they shouldn't actually be technically knowledgeable about the area.

Philanthropic funders

A philanthropic organization is directed by a Board. The board sets the vision for the foundation. Board composition of the board may change over time, impacting the focus of the organization. Understanding the current make up of a foundation's board can help you understand their motivations and priorities.

The Executive Director is hired to execute the Board's vision. They coordinate with a Program team to come up with specific instantiations of this vision.

Program Directors/Officers interpret the board's vision. Program officers find projects and inititaives in line with the board's vision and bring them to the board for funding consideration. Program directors and officers may also project ideas upwards (to the board) to insert new ways of thinking and elevate ideas from the community.

Each foundation has a different hierarchy and way of making decisions. Figure out who the key gatekeepers are and where points of leverage exist.

How to read a funder's website

In academia, a good way to get a paper published in a specific journal is to read other papers that are published in that journal and look for commone themes. In this way, one can learn what a journal prioritizes and then try to copy the tone/style/topics of those papers.

When approaching grant-making entities (public or private), this approach can also be fruitful. But there is no journal of funded grant applications. Often, limited public facing material leaves prospective aplicants facing the funder's website trying to figure out how they might fit in. To demystify what funders are looking for, Chris Holgraf (Jupyter) sat down with Laura Maher (Siegel Family Endowment) to discuss issues that come up when Chris looked at Siegel's website.

Funder websites are great soures of information about their people and priorities. Things to look for on a funder website:

  • Who is on their board? What do board members care about? Because the Board sets the vision, understanding the backgrounds, expereinces, and beliefs of board members gives great insight into how they might react to your project. What industries do they work in? What volunteer and professional affiliations are they a part of? Do they write or speak publically about any issues?
  • What other organizations has this funder funded? Can you connect to those orgnaizations to hear more about their experiences?
    • Note that you can write to funded PIs and ask for a copy of their proposal, and some PIs put their funded (and even unfunded) proposals on their website as a step in the open scholarship process that they are supporting.
    • For federal funding: In the US, you can file a freedom of information (FOI) request with the agency, which they will send to the PI's institution, and which the institute will then send to the PI, so they can either argue why they can't do this (rarely successfully) or can redact any material that involved corporate material or other things that should not be shared. The request also will include the requester's name, and getting such a request tends to annoy the person who has to respond, particularly if the proposal was already public or the PI was happy to email it to a requester, so be aware that submitting an FOI request is completely legal but is not considered "playing nice".
  • What are their buzzwords? What do they mean by their buzzwords? Do you interpret the word "open" in the same way?
    • E.g., NSF has "Intellectual merit" (scientific knowledge) and "Broader impacts" (societal benefit, e.g. education, industry, etc). It says that it is not a "mission agency", unlike other US agencies that support research to satisfy a more focused mission (e.g., improving human health for NIH, supporting energy policy for DOE), though it really does have a broad mission that includes "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense."
    • The NIH has a very general mission of "human health" without a lot of specifics
    • The DOE is also very general, mentioning its relation to the energy sector but with fewer specific pitches.

Agencies have goals, and if you want funding, you have to show how your pitch fits in with them. Don't assume that they'll just find you if your project is interesting enough - Their job isn't just to fund "good stuff" but to make sure you (and your project) fit in with their mission.

(Mozilla) Using Grant Reports to Share Stories Around Working Open

The impact of a project can happen at many different levels - individual, profession, geographic, even the global community. At Mozilla we have realized that there is a lot of power and value in being able to tell a story around the impact of a project or activity that can be just as impactful as the project or activity itself.

One of our granting programs is the Science Mini-Grant Awards. These are short-term (6-8 mos), small amount ($3-10K) grants for open science projects. All awardees get an "onboarding" call to discuss timelines, logistics, and workflows. Our interim reports are conducted over videoconferencing, just to check-in and address blockers or look for opportunities for promotion. Final reports are conducted as hour-long interviews where the final goal is to write up a story from the interview that can be published in a public blogpost linked to community member profiles on our website.

The idea for this originated with a pilot program Mozilla undertook with StoryEngine. Stories were collected from individuals that participated in various Mozilla programs and activities. These stories provided more information on which aspects of these activities worked well and indicated which pieces had the most impact for different people. Our hope for publishing stories around our grant awardees is that they will provide concrete examples of exactly how open science happens, identify where challenges can arise, and how different teams addressed those challenges. These stories can provide relevance and context to others as we attempt to transform the culture of "open science" to that of "science".

Resource: Example Grants

Many projects share their grants openly - if you know where to look. As prospective applicants, look to find success stories somehow to better understand how ideas are pitched.

We'd like to collect links to open grant applications - do you share your grant applications openly? If so, get in touch at [email protected].

  1. The Carpentries (search terms 'grant' and 'funding'.
  2. The Dat Project
  3. Dryad
  4. Please add to this list


Executive Director & President

Thank you for using our resources! We value your feedback to help us improve the quality of our documentation. Please share your thoughts on the resources you have accessed.

Share feedback