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Program Overview

The Institutional Challenge Grant encourages university-based research institutes, schools, and centers to build sustained research-practice partnerships with public agencies or nonprofit organizations in order to reduce inequality in youth outcomes.

To do so, research institutions will need to shift their policies and practices to value collaborative research. They will also need to build the capacity of researchers to produce relevant work and the capacity of agency and nonprofit partners to use research.

Applications are welcome from partnerships in youth-serving areas such as education, justice, child welfare, mental health, immigration, and workforce development. We especially encourage proposals from teams with African American, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American members in leadership roles. The partnership leadership team includes the principal investigator from the research institution and the lead from the public agency or nonprofit organization.


The award supports research institutions to build sustained research-practice partnerships with public agencies or nonprofit organizations in order to reduce inequality in youth outcomes.

Research institutions will need to address four important goals:

The research-practice partnership should have clearly defined goals, roles, and agreements, and be built for the long term. The partnership should be mutually beneficial and enable the partners to jointly pursue research of relevance to the public agency or nonprofit organization over an extended period of time. Additionally, the partnership should articulate how they envision the research will be used.

See: The Next Big Leap for Research-Practice PartnershipsBuilding and Testing Theories to Improve Research Use

The Foundation supports research to build, test, and increase understanding of approaches to reducing inequality in youth outcomes, especially on the basis of race, ethnicity, economic standing, language minority status, or immigrant origins. For this competition, we are interested in research on programs, policies, and practices to reduce inequality in academic, social, behavioral, health, and economic outcomes.

Our focus on reducing inequality grew out of our view that research can do more than help us understand problems—it can point us towards effective program, policy, and practice responses. There is mounting research evidence about the scope, causes, and consequences of inequality in the United States, but we believe that it is time to build stronger bodies of knowledge on how to reduce inequality.

The partnership must increase the utility and strength of the evidence available to inform responses to inequality. The questions and methods pursued as part of the research agenda must be both relevant and rigorous.

See: Bringing Rigor to Relevant Questions: How Social Science Research Can Improve Youth Outcomes in the Real World

A unique and important requirement of this grant competition is institutional change. Research conducted within research-practice partnerships is too often viewed as service and therefore less valued by research institutions. This makes it difficult to attract skilled, mid-career researchers to address questions that are relevant to policy and practice. We encourage research institutions to think critically about the incentives needed to encourage researchers experienced with building theory and empirical evidence to more effectively conduct joint work with policymakers and practitioners. Thought should also be given to the structures and relationships required to facilitate high quality research and to support its use by partnerships.

The success of the partnership and the research is also dependent on the capacity of the partners to collaborate. The grant will engage the equivalent of three one-year, full-time fellows, all of whom are mid-career. Two of these fellows may be supported by funds from the Institutional Challenge Grant; support for the third fellow must come from the applying institution. How and when the fellows are deployed to support the project’s research activities is left to the discretion of each team.

Human capital investments are needed to develop partnership skills. On the research side, we expect that the grant program will impact the professional development and careers of researchers. The fellowship should equip mid-career researchers with new experiences that foster a deeper understanding of a policy or practice context and the skills required to serve as effective partners. Institutions must propose a plan for selecting and developing the skills of mid-career researchers to conduct and support the use of relevant and rigorous research in collaboration with the partner. This might involve training or mentoring to help researchers become valued partners to policymakers and practitioners.

On the public or nonprofit agency side, human capital and infrastructure investments are needed to create the culture and capacity for research production and use. The grant includes resources to invest in the youth-serving organizations to build skills and knowledge, to embed new tools, and to establish new routines that will enhance research use. Funds from the award might support technical assistance, infrastructure improvements, or staff training to bolster the organization’s capacity to understand, conduct, and use research. One of the mid-career fellow positions might be used to aid such efforts. We expect these types of investments will lead to increased access to research in the short term; higher valuation and use of research in the mid-term; and, ultimately, improvements to policy, resource allocation, or service delivery to enhance youth outcomes.

The Award

The award will provide $650,000 over three years. This includes:

  • Up to $50,000 for up to 9 months of joint planning activities (e.g., refining protocols for partnering, selecting fellows, finalizing partnership and data sharing agreements, etc.).
  • Fellowship support for the equivalent of one full-time or two half-time mid-career fellows per year for two years. In addition, universities are required to commit to a 1-for-2 match on the mid-career fellows: the grant pays for two full-time equivalent (FTE) fellows, and universities are required to fund one additional FTE fellow. All fellows must be mid-career.
  • Up to three years of support for the partnership to conduct and use research to reduce inequality in youth outcomes.
  • Resources to advance the proposed institutional shifts and capacities of both partners.
  • Indirect cost allowance of up to 15 percent of total direct costs.

Recipients of the award will have the opportunity to apply for a funded two-year continuation grant in order to solidify the partnership and institutional changes. At the end of the five years, we expect the following results:

  • The research institution has established a set of strategies that facilitate sustained research collaborations with public agencies or private nonprofit organizations.
  • The public agency or private nonprofit organization has increased its capacity to use research evidence.
  • Participating researchers have improved partnership skills.
  • The research generated has been used in decision making and is likely to lead to improved outcomes for youth.

We anticipate running the competition for five years (2017-2022). Applicants not funded in a prior year are welcome to reapply. From the outset, our intention was to make one award per year. Due to the generosity of the Spencer Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, we were able to make one additional award in 2018 and two additional awards in 2019. We intend to award at least one grant per year in future years.

Lastly, please know that we plan to gather grantees and fellows to learn from one another, and we also hope that lessons from these grants radiate beyond the funded institutions and fellows.


Eligible research institutions

The award will be made to an organization, not to an individual. Organizations can include university-based research institutes, schools, or centers. Grants are limited without exception to tax-exempt organizations. Please note that research organizations, think tanks, and other institutions that sit outside of the academy are no longer eligible to apply.

Eligible principal investigators

The principal investigator should be a leader at the research institution. S/he should have visibility, influence on institutional policies and practices, and access to the resources needed to optimize and implement the award. S/he should also possess the skills needed to cultivate trusting relationships with leaders from the partner public agency or nonprofit organization and to ensure the conduct of high-quality research.

Eligible public agencies or nonprofit organizations

Eligible public agencies include state or local agencies and their departments and divisions. Nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations are eligible if they are open to the general public and provide or coordinate services for youth ages 5 to 25 in the United States. Eligible agencies and organizations engage in work relevant to youth in the areas of education, justice, child welfare, mental health, immigration, or workforce development and have the resources needed to implement and optimize the award.

Eligible leaders from the public agency or nonprofit organization

Leaders from the public agency or nonprofit organization should have the authority and influence required to successfully institutionalize the partnership and the use of research evidence in the agency or organization’s work.

Eligible partnerships

Research-practice partnerships are defined as long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations that promote the production and use of rigorous and relevant research evidence. These partnerships take a long view and should extend beyond the life of any one grant, project, or leader. While the competition is open to partnerships at different stages of maturity, applicants will need to convince reviewers that the grant adds significant value to what already exists. We anticipate that it will be difficult for a well-established partnership with strong institutional support to make a convincing case that the award adds value. For newer partnerships, reviewers will seek promising initial evidence that the partners have successfully worked together in the past and have the potential to sustain a long-term collaboration.

Eligible fellows

All fellows must be mid-career. For researchers, we define mid-career as having received the terminal degree within 8 to 20 years of the date that the application is submitted. (This should be calculated by adding 8 and 20 years to the date the doctoral degree was conferred. For medicine, an institution should use the date from the completion of the first residency.) The research fellow does not need to be an employee of the research institution and can be recruited from another institution. The research fellow will be called on to facilitate the research and support the use of research evidence. Applicants may appoint one mid-career fellow from the public agency or nonprofit organization. (All other fellows must be researchers). This should be a mid-career professional at the agency or organization who will be called on to facilitate the use of research. A mid-career professional has 8 to 20 years of cumulative experience in his/her current role.

Selection Criteria

Applications should meet the selection criteria detailed below:

  • Activities for the planning period will strengthen the partnership.
  • Activities advance the research agenda, selection of fellows, and capacity building plans.
  • The public agency or nonprofit organization will receive at least half of the dollars available for planning.
  • The rationale for partnering provides compelling evidence that the research institution and the public agency or nonprofit organization can build a sustained partnership that will work together effectively.
  • The plan for partnering demonstrates mastery of the literature on the challenges and strategies for collaborative work to promote the use of research evidence.
  • Activities for building the partnerships will cultivate trust and deepen relationships.
  • There is evidence that the public agency or nonprofit organization is invested in the partnership, will interact regularly with the fellows, and has strong plans for using the research.
  • The partnership is likely to be sustained after the award ends.
  • The long-term research agenda (including one or more research projects) aligns with the Foundation’s focus on build, test, and increase understanding of a program, policy, or practice to reduce inequality in the academic, social, behavioral, or economic outcomes of young people on the basis of race, ethnicity, language minority status, immigrant origins, or another compelling dimension.
  • The research questions and findings are likely to significantly advance the public agency or nonprofit organization’s efforts to reduce inequality in youth outcomes.
  • Proposals must reflect a mastery of relevant theory and empirical findings, and clearly state the theoretical and empirical contributions they will make to the existing research base.
  • The research plan reflects rigorous methods that are appropriate for the proposal’s goals.
  • Plans for case selection, sampling, and measurement should clearly state why they are well-suited to address the research questions or hypotheses. For example, samples should be appropriate in size and composition to answer the study’s questions. Qualitative case selection—whether critical, comparative, or otherwise—should also be appropriate to answer the proposed questions.
  • The quantitative and/or qualitative analysis plan should demonstrate awareness of the strengths and limits of the specific analytic techniques and how they will be applied in the current case.
  • The methods, time frame, staffing plan, and other resources must be realistic.
  • Plans to interpret and use the research findings in policy or practice decisions are convincing and feasible.
  • Plans for broader dissemination are likely to amplify study findings and their use.
  • The application provides a thoughtful discussion of potential obstacles that limit researchers’ participation in research-practice partnerships and offers a plan for overcoming those obstacles.
  • Assurances are compelling that the research institution will provide the necessary funding, alter policies, and/or enact new practices to attract, support, and reward strong investigators to conduct partnership research.
  • The plan for institutional change is feasible given the resources and time frame.
  • The application demonstrates a commitment to sustain the institutional changes beyond the conclusion of the award.
  • The application includes written assurances that the research institution will provide support for the equivalent of one full-time mid-career fellow for one year.
  • All fellows commit a minimum of half-time status for at least a six-month period.
  • The criteria for selecting fellows ensures that the fellows possess the relevant expertise to carry out the proposed work and can effectively communicate what is learned to the broader research community and to change makers in other state or local settings.
  • The capacity-building plan for the research fellows significantly extends the fellows’ skills as effective partners to policymakers and practitioners.
  • Capacity-building activities for the public agency or nonprofit organization leverage what is already known about strategies for mobilizing research for use in practice or policy.
  • The capacity-building plan for the public agency or nonprofit organization significantly extends the organization’s ability to access, conduct, and integrate high-quality research evidence into their work.

For complete application guidelines, including details on preparing and submitting an application, download the 2020 Application Guidelines.