The 2021 online application is now closed.


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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 will have defined objectives, roles, and agreements, and will be built for the long term. In this way, the partnership will be mutually beneficial, enabling the partners to develop and pursue a joint research agenda that is relevant to the public agency or nonprofit organization’s work over an extended period of time.

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

The partnership’s research will aim to build, test, or increase understanding of programs, policies, or practices to reduce inequality in the academic, social, behavioral, or economic outcomes of young people ages 5-25 in the United States. Specifically, the research agenda will seek to inform responses to inequality on the basis of race, ethnicity, economic standing, language minority status, or immigrant origins.

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

The research institution will design a feasible strategy for institutional change that addresses the structural, motivational, and financial barriers that inhibit research-practice partnerships. By establishing structural supports and incentives that encourage skilled, mid-career researchers to conduct joint work with policymakers and practitioners, the institution will develop an environment for partnerships to thrive.

Grantees on the research side will have new experiences that foster deeper understandings of a given policy or practice context and the skills required to serve as effective partners. At the same time, the public agency or nonprofit partner will also bolster their capacity to understand, conduct, and use research through activities such as technical assistance, infrastructure improvements, or staff training.

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 fellows, and universities are required to fund one additional full-time equivalent fellow.
  • 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.

Current grantees 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.

Our intention when we launched the Institutional Challenge Grant program was to make one award per year. Since 2018, the generosity of the Spencer Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the American Institutes for Research have allowed us to make multiple awards per year. We intend to award at least one grant per year.


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. Institutions that sit outside of the academy, such as research organizations and think tanks, are not eligible.

Eligible principal investigators

Eligible principal investigators are leaders at eligible research institutions. They have visibility, influence on institutional policies and practices, and access to the resources needed to optimize and implement the award. They 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

Eligible leaders from the public agency or nonprofit organization 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

We are most interested in supporting existing research-practice partnerships that will use the grant to continue learning and growing. While the competition is open to partnerships at different stages of maturity, the grant is intended to add significant value to what already exists.

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. 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.
  • The proposal reflects a mastery of relevant theory and empirical findings, and clearly states the theoretical and empirical contributions the study 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 clearly state why they are well-suited to address the research questions or hypotheses. For example, samples are appropriate in size and composition to answer the study’s questions. Qualitative case selection—whether critical, comparative, or otherwise—is also be appropriate to answer the proposed questions.
  • The quantitative and/or qualitative analysis plan demonstrates 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 are realistic.
  • Plans to interpret and use the research findings in policy or practice decisions are convincing, feasible, and aligned with the literature on improving the use of research evidence.
  • 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 ensure 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 the empirical literature on 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 2021 Application Guidelines.