Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Aug. 22, 2022, with the correct name of the American Institutes for Research.
The AIR Equity Initiative, a participant in the Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN), is a grantmaking effort within the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and provides technical assistance.
This interview with Kimberly DuMont, an AIR vice president and the initiative’s managing director, has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Let’s start with the basics: What is the Equity Initiative?
A: The AIR Equity Initiative is dedicated to furthering our mission at the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, to generate and use high-quality evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world. The initiative funds efforts that combine the collective strengths of research and technical assistance with community, practice, and policy expertise. And it values and includes diverse perspectives and encourages partnerships to address long-standing inequities. In the longer term, the initiative aims to improve public safety, reduce harm in policing, and enhance opportunity and advancement in education and work.
Q: You’ve spent a lot of time studying how research is used in policy and practice. How have findings from this research informed the initiative’s approach?
A: Two findings guide our grantmaking: First, we routinely include the people who might use our research in our evidence-building efforts. This engagement increases the likelihood that the research we fund will be used. Second, studies suggest that relationships between researchers and decision-makers are essential to improving the usefulness and use of evidence in policy and practice. So, we devote a lot of time to cultivating trusting relationships between researchers and decision-makers in policy and practice communities.
The long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships that we foster through our relationship-building work have value throughout the course of the research projects we fund. These partnerships inform what questions and concerns are pursued in the research, shape the data analysis, and support the use of evidence in policy and practice. In general, funders—public and private—need to value and financially support the sustained engagement of experts who sit in roles outside research institutions, bring varied expertise, and have experience navigating challenges in their specific policy or practice context.
Q: Could you give an example of how you, as a funder, are trying to integrate feedback from the groups you hope will be affected by your grantmaking?
A: We do that in four stages of our grantmaking process. During the design stage of a request for proposal, we work with stakeholders to integrate their insights into the language we use to describe the funding opportunity, including the guidance that frames our expectations for strong proposals. Then, in the letter of intent and proposal review stage, we solicit diverse perspectives about how we should weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the grant proposals. The requirements and incentives in our funding program encourage grantee project teams to engage throughout the project lifecycle with decision-makers and those impacted by the work. Our hope is that these efforts create regular and meaningful points of connection between these different groups. And then down the road, we plan to systematically engage a diverse group of stakeholders to help us evaluate and learn from our portfolio of work.
Q: Young people are one of the stakeholder groups you’ve been working to engage, correct?
A: Yes, the AIR Equity Initiative is concerned with institutions and systems that affect young people—education, workforce development, public safety, and policing. Yet, researchers and policymakers often overlook the important perspective and knowledge that young adults are eager to contribute.
With this in mind, I’m very excited about the Equity Initiative’s partnership with the Youth Policy Consultants at the American Youth Policy Forum. This collaboration aims to chart a path in research and in policy that is better informed by those with lived expertise. The effort also aims to create resources that will help young adults better understand research and the grantmaking process. The partnership includes a formal agreement, dollars to support its administration, and twice-monthly meetings where AIR staff meet and work together with the young adults.
Q: What have you learned from this partnership?
A: We’ve learned a lot, but two lessons stand out: First, be open and ready to act on the unexpected. Second, different lived experiences bring different ways of thinking, different ideas for changing systems, and different pursuits for research. These differences also mean there are likely to be missteps. So, partnership work requires being prepared to back up and adjust as you navigate your relationship and to undertake projects and paths that were not on your radar. It also means giving up some control and letting youth drive the narrative.
Q: Can you give an example of what that means in practice?
A: Yes. For us, letting youth drive the narrative meant developing a podcast series on the potential of credible messengers to bridge critical gaps in the experiences of young adults in schools, higher education, child welfare settings, and justice system.
Q: Ok, that’s one lesson that stood out to you. What about the other one?
A: Be generous with your time. There are no shortcuts; relationships take time to develop. Partnerships require ample space to explore different ways of observing, thinking, interpreting, and validating ideas. Some of this exploration happens together. But groups also need time to explore separately. Partners need time on their own to grapple with diverse ideas and processes so they can embed insights from their collaborators in both the what (the topics) and the how (the process) of their shared project work.
Q: What advice do you have for funders who may be thinking about integrating a wider array of voices into their grantmaking process?
A: Funders should model what we want our grantees to do. Be intentional, flexible, and nurture relationships. Iterate to incorporate learning as you go. You can’t know where you’re going to end up, just the general space you want to be in. We will learn, and the direction—or at least the texture—of our work will be different.
Q: What do you think grantmakers need to learn together?
A: Every morning I wake up with this question on my mind, and I’m grateful that the Transforming Evidence Funders Network has connected me with others who have similar concerns. I wonder what it takes to fully support connections between research, policy, and practice to create meaningful change. I think about staffing structures we need, and the duration of the awards we need, to productively engage multiple stakeholders over a sustained period. I wonder what criteria and what types of reviewers will help us select promising partnership projects that will support the use of evidence in policy and practice. I wonder how to resolve tensions that arise when we ask grant applicants to conduct work in partnership while also asking applicants to propose well-conceived multiyear plans. I wonder how best to bundle and support these varied demands in a way that contributes to a better, more equitable world. I encourage other grantmakers to ask themselves: Does our funding benefit groups that are too often excluded or negatively impacted by policy and practice?