Contracting for communications: four steps to get the budget, and the impact, you need

24 February 2020

In the contract, we promised to deliver ten research reports, three international events, and 20 infographics. And we’ve got £1,000 in the budget for you to work with! That’s enough, right?

If you work in research communications, I guarantee you’ve heard some variant on the statement above. It is common to promise the world to donors, as a way to demonstrate your commitment to communications, or to prove you can deliver more than a competitor. But often these promises don’t have the needed budget attached, and they often bear no resemblance to the impact sought by the project, and by the donor.

So, how can you design a budget and a project narrative in a way that meets the demands of donors and researchers? How can you factor in appropriate milestones and impact indicators, while leaving yourself flexibility later in the project? If you’ve ever asked those questions, these four steps may be helpful: get involved in the bids and proposals process; review closely; think about your outputs; and then insert stock language and budget figures.

1. Get involved in the bids and proposals process

Designing a flexible contract to deliver innovative communications sounds great, but it depends on whether you can get anywhere near the contract in the first place. Often, bids and proposals are wholly owned by researchers and/or programme management departments, with little room for additional players. Despite the increasing number of communications outputs being added into proposals, communications staff are rarely consulted as to whether they are the right outputs to include, and how much budget will be needed.

Hence, my first step is to insert yourself into that process. If you’re senior enough, demand that any proposal that includes communications outputs has your sign-off – that way you can review the language and budget in advance.

If you’re not senior enough, become friends with the programme management department (do that anyway!). Provide them with stock language and budget figures. Cultivate a relationship whereby they flag to you anything that doesn’t look doable or isn’t well connected to the mission of the project. Over time, you will be able to have more say.

2. Review closely!

When you do get to look at a bid or proposal, I would recommend doing two things.

Firstly, read the text. Check, does it make sense? Could it be better structured? Is it missing anything crucial (such as the ‘how’ in the impact section)? Check the timing – is it too ambitious? And finally, does it look good? These types of checks are a good way to get ‘in’ at the proposal stage – offer to edit and/or design the proposal, or offer to write the impact section. Use that as a springboard to look at the whole thing.

Secondly, review the budget. Is every output listed in the proposal included in the budget? What about the amount proposed for the outputs – can you deliver an international event for what is included? What about the fancy videos they have promised? Should you include staff time for communications staff in the budget? If so, is it included?

3. Think about your outputs

Often, the above steps will be as far as you can go. Others above your paygrade have set what they want to deliver, and the best you can do is ensure that this is appropriately budgeted for so that you don’t run into difficulties down the line. If you are able to go further, this is when you can really think about your outputs.

After reviewing the proposal – the research the team wants to do, the impact they want to achieve, the audiences they are aiming at, and the time and resources available – what outputs make sense? Creating a fancy animation is great, but it may not be suited to a project that primarily wants to shift the academic debate. Holding dissemination events may be a great way to get your research findings out there, but if the research is on Kenya, shouldn’t they be held in Kenya?… It’s often useful to interrogate what you’re proposing to deliver and why, to avoid spending donor money on outputs that don’t make too much sense vis-a-vis your plans for impact.

4. Insert stock language and budget figures

If you’ve got this far, chances are you have some sway over the proposal narrative, budget, and how you go about justifying your impact. If so, congratulations! Whenever I was in that position, I usually added a paragraph to the proposal along the lines of this:

This project is aiming to deliver [insert impact here, e.g. 3-4 policy changes within our target countries]. To do so, we plan to focus our communications efforts on [insert primary audiences here: e.g. in-country policymakers, prominent news outlets, and local elites]. To reach these people, we are planning to release a number of targeted communications products such as research reports, policy papers, blogs, animations, podcasts, and events.

To deliver these products, we have budgeted a total of [insert block budget here] over the life of the project for ‘Innovative Communications’. This flexible budget will allow us to make judgement calls as to how to best disseminate ongoing project findings, and obtain maximum impact for the project. We have a long history of using open-ended flexible funding to provide impactful communications products, such as [insert some examples here]. These examples show our ability to be able to spend budget effectively on such products, and achieve maximum impact for the project.

Once you’ve done that, make sure you firstly go back through the narrative and change all ‘planned’ outputs to ‘proposed’, and include a budget line for ‘Innovative Communications.’ To come up with the budget figure, you could think through what you’d like to deliver (perhaps it is those ten research reports, three international events, and 20 infographics) and include how much you would need to deliver them.

The key word in all of this is flexibility. There is no point in tying yourself, and the project, to delivering specific outputs ahead of time, without knowing what the research findings will be, what outputs they will be best suited to, and what formats your audiences will want to engage with. By providing yourself with flexible language and a flexible budget line, you can determine what you create when you need to create it.

And finally, the question you may be asking, ‘Will donors accept this?’ I often got pushback to the above approach on the premise that you must provide specific outputs to donors, for monitoring and evaluation purposes. This is (usually) not true. All donors want demonstrated impact, and most are willing to be flexible as to how to achieve this. If you can eloquently explain what you want to do, why, and how it will deliver greater impact and value for money, you can usually get what you’re after. And if not, you can at least normally get more than £1,000!