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How Philanthropy Can Catalyze Government-Research Partnerships — and Why it Should

Date: June 7, 2022

Angela Bednarek

Project Director, Evidence Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Jenni Owen

Director, North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships

Alex Sileo

Senior Associate, Results First Initiative, The Pew Charitable Trusts

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Partnerships between government and research organizations have increasingly emerged as a promising path for policymakers to expand their access to and use of evidence in policy, program, and budget decisions. In these partnerships, government officials and researchers co-define information needs and engage regularly to ensure that evidence is more relevant, trusted, and likely to be used.

Yet despite this potential, many such partnerships are created on an ad hoc basis, struggle to secure stakeholder participation due to competing incentives (such as different timescales for research and decision-making) and lack of sustainable infrastructure and support. Through our respective work developing innovative partnerships in North Carolina and building a funders’ network dedicated to expanding the potential for partnerships, we believe that the philanthropic sector is at an inflection point for supporting and scaling government-research partnerships. With investments and innovation, funders can move the needle on partnerships and ultimately increase the chances that research informs decision-making and strengthens outcomes across policy areas.

Across diverse issue areas, government-research partnerships can yield benefits such as ensuring:

  • Research is more relevant to government. With partnerships, government needs and researcher supply are linked from the start so that research questions and agendas can be formulated for real-world challenges in real time.
  • Government has more evidence. Partnerships can increase both the range of challenges that agencies can address using research and their capacity for focusing on concerns that go beyond immediate needs.
  • Evidence use can increase. Government engagement with researchers allows ongoing learning that helps government partners understand how research can be used in their decision-making, keeps researchers on track for building relevant research, and cultivates mutual trust in the process.
  • Efficient connections between research supply and government demand. Exposing researchers and government staff to each other more regularly can help researchers understand budget and policy processes while helping government staff learn more about the research process. This engagement can improve the efficiency of researchers tailoring their work and government staff defining their information needs.

What do these partnerships look like in practice?

As an example, North Carolina’s Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) works to “ partnerships between state government and North Carolina’s research and philanthropic sectors … the State’s internal capacity to use and generate evidence in its policy and programmatic functions.” Housed within the Office of State Budget and Management and led by the state’s first director of strategic partnerships, OSP plays a critical intermediary role in catalyzing and supporting partnerships in the state — by inviting department officials to work collaboratively on learning agendas to highlight their research priorities, tailoring partnership development and execution for each agency, publicizing partnership opportunities to researchers, helping refine research questions, convening researchers and agency staff, and contributing to individual projects.

OSP’s intermediary work with the Department of Revenue (DOR) — to clarify and share the agency’s priorities widely with researchers across state universities, colleges, and other research organizations, with an eye toward matching interested researchers with DOR officials — provides an example of some partnership outcomes. In one resulting partnership from 2020, the Taxpayer Outreach Project, a project team including representatives from the DOR, OSP, and universities collaborated to redesign tax inserts that the agency sends to hundreds of thousands of state taxpayers each year. The redesigned inserts include clearer instructions and information about available resources, with the aim of improving payment compliance and responsiveness. DOR is now applying these lessons to other communications efforts, while OSP is helping the agency pursue additional research partnerships intended to bring more outside expertise to the agency.

Through its work, OSP has demonstrated the promise of these partnerships for the state and observed the need for more support to enable successful partnerships. Indeed, in many cases, partnerships are successful only with the support of dedicated experts or intermediaries, such as OSP, who understand how to bring prospective partners together, balance power dynamics, and sustain relationships long enough for partnerships to develop. And researchers and decision-makers often also need resources and training to engage effectively with each other. This kind of workforce and infrastructure is still rare, however, within governments and universities. That’s why OSP and philanthropic partners co-developed the role of  philanthropy liaison to help explain to funders how they might support research partnerships, and to foster and institutionalize relationships between philanthropy and government.

How can philanthropy support partnerships?

Efforts throughout the world reflect these opportunities for philanthropy. The Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN), a global network of funders formed last year by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William T. Grant Foundation focused on improving the use of evidence in policy and practice, works to support and scale these emerging partnerships in diverse settings, including building the necessary infrastructure and workforce. By sharing promising practices and lessons learned and engaging with partners in the field, such as OSP, this group has identified four ways that funders can move the needle on partnerships, detailed below.

Invest. Funders can support new or existing partnerships on specific topics. To allow partnerships to focus on small or time-sensitive projects, funders could create a pool of money that could be drawn on quickly by governments or researchers. Funders could also invest in staffing and infrastructure, such as North Carolina’s OSP, or government partnership centers to foster engagement that can persist through political cycles. Funders can also support efforts to assess how partnerships are working to pinpoint when, where, and how they can best be deployed.

Incentivize. Philanthropy can cultivate the enabling conditions for partnerships, including incentives that reward stakeholders for engagement. Some funders have dedicated investments to support universities and governments in engaging in partnerships and to develop incentive systems that encourage partnerships and can serve as models.

Innovate. Funders can reshape their own practices and align efforts. For example, some funders within TEFN already require intermediary support and partnership-based approaches in their grants and are making their grantmaking practices more accessible to other philanthropies. If more funders incorporated these requirements in their grantmaking, and explicitly incentivized engagement in the ways described above, funders could help scale partnerships.

Inspire. Through partnerships, funders can create momentum toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in research and government institutions. For example, partnerships can draw on expertise from a much wider array of colleges and universities, including community colleges. And there’s potential for identifying a wider array of government program participants who could ultimately benefit from the success of these projects. By bringing together a greater diversity of perspectives in generating research questions and evidence needs as well as carrying out specific research projects with more participatory methodologies, partnerships have the potential to create research that meets program beneficiaries where they are.

Building Momentum

Government-research partnerships hold promise for strengthening and broadening the capacity of government to improve programs; to respond to short- and long-term challenges; to increase policymaker trust in, and use of, evidence; and to promote inclusivity in who does research and promote equity in who benefits from research and government investments. As the OSP example shows, however, partnerships need infrastructure and support to realize their potential and reap benefits for researchers, governments, and — ultimately — the public. This requires funders to consider how to align and coordinate so the critical systems changes can take root.

The philanthropic sector has a unique role to play in this space, with funders actively investing, incentivizing, and inspiring partnerships. And funders have developed innovative models and practices for supporting partnerships on their own. But now they will need to better align their investments to increase their capacity to support researchers, policymakers, and practitioners and the necessary infrastructure and workforce, and, ultimately, build greater demand for evidence-informed solutions.

Angela Bednarek directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Evidence Project, Jenni Owen is the director of the North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships, and Alex Sileo is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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