Why Diversity Matters: Securing Grants

Having a diverse campus benefits the social and intellectual development of an institution’s students, faculty, and staff, but there are other, less apparent bonuses to cultivating a welcoming environment for historically underrepresented groups. Some of the country’s largest grant-giving organizations take diversity into account when considering a college or university’s grant proposal.

A number of agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (NSF), provide specific grant opportunities aimed at advancing diversity. For example, the National Cancer Institute grants the Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award to Promote Diversity annually, and NSF provides funding opportunities to support research at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in order to increase the number of African Americans with advanced degrees.

But how does an institution’s diversity affect its ability to compete for grants that are not directly related to diversity? Do institutional demographics and support for underrepresented students play a role?

Travis Reindl at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says they do.

The Gates Foundation is the largest private, nonprofit organization in the world. Reindl, who is the organization’s senior communications officer for postsecondary success, says that this year, the foundation is projected to award $90 million in postsecondary success grants, which are given to higher education institutions for innovative work.

Occasionally, the organization will accept requests for proposals from colleges and universities as part of its Grand Challenge Grant opportunities — to “crowdsource new innovations and spur competition,” Reindl says. However, most awardees are institutions that have been sought out by the Gates Foundation because of displayed excellence. Those selected submit proposals for consideration.

“Because our reach is so wide and global, if we did open proposals, we would be completely inundated,” Reindl says. “Instead, we follow the evidence to where it takes us.”

When assessing potential grantees, Reindl says the Gates Foundation looks at a number of factors, including how an institution supports its underrepresented populations.

“Are [the institutions] really focused on those populations that have historically faced challenges?” he says. “We also look at the leadership — is there stable leadership that can help guide the institution through difficult changes? Do they use data to pinpoint successes and shortcomings? Are there any potential policy oppositions or challenges in the state [in which they are located]?

“And then there is the campus culture — is there a culture of innovation and willingness to try new things? But one of the main factors is the students that they’re serving.”

One example Reindl cites is Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. The college was recently awarded a grant by the Gates Foundation for its “Completion by Design” initiative, which uses student data to track at-risk students and intervene when they are likely to drop out.

“[Sinclair] has embraced the use of data to guide and advise students who are older, who maybe enrolled with a GED, or who are the first in their family to go to college,” he says. “They’re really able to mine and harvest the information to provide support to students just in time [before they drop out]. It’s really vital to get information to the right people — faculty and advisers — at the right time, to keep that student who might be slipping … in school.”

The NSF, another large grant-funding agency, also considers diversity in its applicants. As part of every selection process, prospective grantees are evaluated on their proposal’s intellectual merit and on its broader impact. This is true for all grant proposals, not only those focused on diversity.

The National Science Board — which establishes grant proposal evaluation guidelines for NSF — defines “broader impact” as the ways in which the proposed project will benefit society or advance a desired social outcome. A few examples of such outcomes include the full participation of women, people with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields; development of a diverse STEM workforce; and enhanced research and education infrastructure.

Jean Vanski, acting deputy director of the Division of Institution and Award Support at NSF, says “infrastructure” includes the people involved in research and education.

“The NSF is a dual-mission agency concerned with the health of science and engineering research and its infrastructure, which includes equipment, facilities, and human resources — including diverse faculty members,” she says. “Diversity is important to our mission because different perspectives bring to an enterprise different ways of solving problems.”

She says NSF is especially interested in grant projects that build links between institutions, particularly two- and four-year institutions, minority-serving institutions, and predominantly white universities.

“Lots of students start out in two-year institutions, where they may not have as many opportunities for science and engineering research experiences,” Vanski says. “So we look for projects that develop infrastructure and transference between institutions.”

She says another aspect NSF looks at during the merit review process is the grant proposer’s track record in serving underrepresented groups and whether diverse researchers will be part of the project’s team. For institutions hoping to secure funding from NSF, expanding opportunities for underrepresented groups is key.

But beyond having a diverse campus that supports a range of groups, Reindl says being competitive when seeking grants is also about being honest with yourself at the institutional level.

“Knowing your numbers is important, but putting a face on those numbers and having stories is how you’re going to present a strong proposal,” he says. “Being really self-aware is important, as is asking and knowing what is working well and then capitalizing and building on that. And are you visibly committed to making changes? … It’s not always easy to see where you need to improve.”

That honesty and self-awareness, though, could make all the difference.●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.