How corporate sponsorships can strengthen your research output


In a recent article, Times Higher Education discussed how the UK’s share of EU research funding has dropped. Looking at the Government’s figures for research funding won by UK researchers, there appears to have been a significant dip in the funding for joint Horizon 2020 projects led by the UK. So what do we do now that what we all dreaded, has become reality?

It is clear that no matter what happens in Brexit negotiations, a new funding model for UK universities is needed to remain among the best research centres in the world.

When one revenue source dries up, looking to another, equally affluent source is a necessity. One income stream that has huge, untapped potential is corporate sponsorships. I know for some of you this will ring alarm bells and bring up horror stories of industries and companies attempting (and in some cases succeeding) to influence research, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

Corporate sponsorships can be mutually beneficial without tainting the validity of the research. In social science, where I hail from, corporate partnerships are often a prerequisite for getting the research done. How can you study efficiency in hospitals if you do not have access to actual field sites in hospitals? How can you learn what might improve employee conscientiousness if we do not work with them in their own context?

Corporate research partnerships do not have to be solely about money. As mentioned above it can also be about access to field sites, data or contacts. What if the research undertaken can benefit the company, not just in terms of understanding employees better, but possibly in product development as well?

Ensure that the corporate sponsorship is a good fit for the research project

The first thing to look at is whether the potential corporate sponsor is a good fit for the research project. Does their company align with the values and purpose of the research?

You may ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do we want to align ourselves and our research with?
  • What signal will this sponsorship send to the world about us?

Make sure you look at their governance structure and reputation. Will you be able to work with them in the way you need to? Is there anything in their current or past work that may shine a negative light on your research? How will the company sponsorship be mentioned in the research and how will logos and brands be displayed together?

When you have an idea of which companies might be a good fit, ask: How do we want to align ourselves with the company? How do we set boundaries for their involvement in the research, e.g. when do we share results?

Dealing with corporate sponsorships as a communications and marketing professional

With your experience in communications and marketing there are several things you can help the researchers with. In the initial phase they may need help facilitating collaborations by identifying possible sponsors and doing research on their reputations and history. This might include a risk analysis of the collaboration, as well as a plan of action should anything negative come to light during the project. Any risk analysis should go beyond the individual research project and also include potential reputational risks to your organisation as a whole.

When approaching the possible collaborator, you can use your communications skills to help the researcher write a persuasive funding or collaboration proposal. Help the researcher figure out where academic and corporate interests intersect. What are the challenges the company is facing? What can the research bring to the company that they would not otherwise have?

You can also write a list of all the ways each of the partners (company, university, researcher) will benefit from the collaboration. By showing how the project can benefit all parties, you put your researcher in a much stronger bargaining position with the company you are approaching and any university bodies that will need to sign off on the project.

And finally, as the project gets underway, you can help with relationship management between the researchers and the company’s management team. This will ensure that information is easily shared and that everyone feels they have ownership of the project. This will be key for a smooth process and eventually, the successful completion of the project.

Pernille Norregaard is a communications and marketing expert with over 15 years’ experience. She specialises in communications management in purpose-driven organisations and Higher Education. Read more here.