Research Development and Support aids researchers seeking competitive foundation awards

by Jenna Somers

Research Development and Support is enhancing its support for faculty seeking funding from external sponsors with a new emphasis on foundations and other private sponsors. This expansion is part of a cohesive strategy within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research to support faculty pursuing competitive research proposals and receiving prestigious awards from external sponsors, ranging from federal, state and local governments to industry and nonprofits.

Over the course of the first six months of fiscal year 2022, RDS supported faculty in the submission of 65 proposals, 53 of which were to private sponsors. For comparison, during the full 12 months of fiscal year 2021, RDS supported the submission of 62 proposals, 30 of which were to private sponsors.

Similarly, during the first six months of fiscal year 2022, RDS supported faculty who received 17 awards totaling more than $15 million, compared to nine awards totaling $8.74 million during all of fiscal year 2021. The jump in the number of awards from private sponsors is particularly noteworthy: 11 in fiscal year 2022 compared to only one in fiscal year 2021.

These gains in proposals submitted and awards received with support from RDS reflect the team’s enhanced capacity to advance the Office of Research’s strategic mission to strengthen support for researchers, scholars and innovators. While the data are impressive, the faculty research projects behind the numbers are even more exciting.

Recently, Robert S. and Theresa L. Reder Professor of Law Terry Maroney won the Russell Sage Foundation Visiting Scholars award from the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City, where she will spend a year in residence working on a book examining the role of emotions in judges’ experiences, behaviors and decision-making. Maroney identified several potential grants to support her sabbatical, and then RDS staff researched them in detail and collaborated with Maroney to tailor her application to the Russell Sage Foundation.

“RDS is a fabulous resource. They read drafts, gave excellent comments and were generally indispensable in helping me articulate my proposal within the foundation’s parameters,” Maroney said. “They helped me wrangle my big ideas into a proposal-worthy package. At no point did they substitute their voices and vision for mine; rather, they helped me write my own best proposal.”

RDS also can support faculty with proposal submissions that involve many collaborators and information that is difficult to access. That was the case for Stevenson Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Johnston’s proposal to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to renew the Beckman Scholars Program, which provides a 15-month mentored research experience to undergraduate students in chemistry and biological sciences. As program director, Johnston led a team of 15 faculty members in the Chemistry and Biological Sciences departments in the College of Arts and Science to submit the proposal and win the award to renew the program.

According to Johnston, RDS coordinated requests for essential demographic and financial data from personnel in the Office of Research and the Office of Data and Strategic Analytics, as well as the editing and submission of faculty mentoring statements, which were critical proposal materials. RDS also coordinated the proposal submission with departmental grants managers and evaluated the full proposal, progress report and COVID-19 impact statement to ensure that all documents met the sponsor’s criteria.

“It can be a challenge to identify the office responsible for each [proposal] component, but my contacts in RDS were positioned to make those connections and assist in the deconvolution of the data—two necessary steps to ensure that I was reporting exactly what the foundation was asking for and the reviewers expected,” Johnston said.

Beyond the services demonstrated in these examples, RDS provides a range of support to faculty seeking funding, including grant-writing assistance, editing documents, content development, graphic design and more. The team also collaborates with departmental grants managers to support proposals in all stages of development. While these administrative, tangible forms of assistance are critical to securing funding from foundations, relationship-building is most essential.

RDS staff build strong relationships between sponsors and researchers by identifying foundations whose objectives align with faculty members’ project ideas and then marketing those ideas to the foundations through tailored proposal support. Additionally, RDS researches institutional history and collaborates with Development and Alumni Relations to recognize and build upon Vanderbilt’s past and ongoing relationships with sponsors. Whether a researcher is new to the process or an expert with well-established relationships, RDS has the resources and connections to support faculty pursuing foundation funding.

To learn more about foundations and the wide range of services provided by Research Development and Support, please contact