by Chelsea Nash, CFICE Communications Research Assistant

Two people sit around a giant paper with the word "finance" across it, and images outlining the next steps from funding to growth.Grant applications can be long and arduous processes, and can swallow a lot of your capacity and time, which is why it’s important to make sure the grant will suit your needs. Before applying for a grant like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Partnership Grant, first consider whether it’s the best fit for your organization, and for the goals of your partnership with Canadian academics. Having a funder that is aligned with your own mandate and priorities can make a world of difference to your project.

When the CFICE project started in 2012, it was one of the first multi-partner projects funded by SSHRC. Since then, some aspects of SSHRC’s structure and decision-making processes have evolved. Nonetheless, the CFICE project has valuable insight to offer others who might be considering engaging in a community-campus engagement (CCE) partnership and seeking funding through SSHRC. Here are some things to consider before applying for a SSHRC grant to help you determine whether it is the right grant for you.

What and who SSHRC funds

SSHRC’s primary mandate is “to promote and support post-secondary-based research and training in the humanities and social sciences.” Even when funding community-campus engagement (CCE) projects, supporting academic research, and training the next generation of researchers are SSHRC’s main functions. SSHRC does provide funding opportunities for partnerships via a suite of Partnership Development Grants. These grants are not limited to community-campus partnerships, though such partnerships are certainly eligible. The majority of SSHRC funded partnerships involve not-for-profit organizations. SSHRC writes, “By fostering mutual co-operation and sharing of intellectual leadership, the grants allow partners to innovate, build institutional capacity and mobilize research knowledge in accessible ways.”

Funding challenges to consider

Governance structure

While SSHRC partnership funding can and does benefit both the academic and the community partner, given SSHRC’s primary mandate of advancing and supporting postsecondary-based research, the academic institution involved in the project is the one with final control over the use of the funds. This can create challenges for your partnership.

For SSHRC funded projects, the (academic) principal investigator on the project has the final say in any financial decisions, because they are the ones ultimately accountable for the funding. In the context of CFICE, this inability for community partners to have direct access to the funds highlighted explicit power dynamics between academic and community partners.

If you do apply for a SSHRC partnership grant, ensure that all partners are aware of the restrictions and constraints well in advance, as you do not want your community partner to end up feeling as though community needs and expertise are not valued, even though some aspects of the SSHRC grant may imply as much. (See here for more information on navigating power dynamics within CCE).

Hands of many individuals from different background pile on top of each other in the centre.

Ensure all partners are on the same page with respect to governance.

While CFICE was required to channel the SSHRC funding through Carleton University due to the parameters of the grant, SSHRC does not stipulate any restrictions when it comes to governance of the project itself. In CFICE’s experience, incorporating co-governance via the inclusion of both community and academic perspectives as much as possible into the project helped to create an environment of respect for all partners. Co-governance was exercised in many decision making processes, including the existence of a budget committee which was composed of academic and community partners. And, the leadership on all projects was regularly shared by at least one academic partner and one community partner. CFICE found that ensuring community voices were heard at all levels of the project was an essential aspect of creating a community-first environment.

Capacity of all partners

Under SSHRC partnership grants, community partners are expected to contribute in-kind resources and time to the project. If the community partner is already strapped for resources, this could be a significant impediment to your partnership. One way to navigate this challenge could be to find as many ways as possible to bring down the costs of involvement for the community partner—for instance, employing embedded RAs to work with the community partner can increase their capacity, allowing them to contribute more time to the partnership. Also, having partners contribute in-kind resources that they already use and know well, such as webinar platform space, can ensure community partners help meet the project’s in-kind contribution requirements.

Navigating the bureaucracy associated with a SSHRC grant can also be a barrier to the success of your CCE partnership. When a CCE partnership is already working with limited capacity, the excess time and effort it can take to chase after reimbursements, for instance, can weigh down a project. To balance this, consider hiring a project administrator to keep track of funding requests, reimbursement requests, and the flow of other funds.

It is also important to make sure that partners fully understand all “capacity-enhancing” opportunities within SSHRC funding. For example, CFICE found that helping partners take advantage of the “salary research allowance,” was regularly complicated and difficult to implement. SSHRC’s salary research allowance provides funds for community partners to hire replacements for themselves within their community organization, therefore allowing the partner (not the hiree) to dedicate their own time to the research project. CFICE’s community partners, particularly the smaller organizations, found the work it took to hire and train a replacement for themselves to be restrictive, particularly if there was only a limited amount of funding available for that partner (e.g. under $10,000/year). Considering the best way to effectively reimburse the community partner is an important aspect of deciding which fund is best suited for your needs.

A pink piggy bank faces the camera head on.

Fully understand the opportunities and challenges with capacity enhancing components of your grant.

Project size

SSHRC funds partnerships of all sizes. Your partnership could consist of one academic and one community partner, or it could include many of each. The CFICE project, for instance, was one of the first of its size to receive SSHRC funding, with five different hubs and multiple partners within each hub. As long as the size of your project is justified in your application and feasible within the parameters of the grant, the size of the partnership is entirely up to the team.

In CFICE’s case, the sheer size and complexity of the project became a challenge. Spreading resources across multiple partners led to issues of resources being spread too thin. CFICE was able to maximize its funding across a wide array of projects and partners, but partners regularly commented that funding was not adequate for fostering long-term, in-depth partnerships. Limited funding for each community partner also led to the problems identified with the salary research allowance discussed above.

Ensuring that the size of your project is realistic with the funds available is important, particularly taking into account any variables that could arise over time, such as personnel changes, unexpected costs associated with travel or meeting space, etc.

Get to know the ins and outs of SSHRC before you apply

At their core, SSHRC partnership grants operate with the goal of supporting academic research, as this is what SSHRC is mandated to support through its government funding. While it is possible to function in a community-first way with SSHRC funding, it’s important to consider the potential challenges for community partners in advance of applying for the grant to decide if it’s the best source of funding for your partnership.

Reviewing the restrictions and constraints of any funds you might be considering, and involving all partners in those discussions, will give you a better idea of the challenges you might encounter should you receive that funding.