By Sine Littlewood, Chair of the NIHR Research Charities Engagement Programme Board, Head of Business Development & Marketing (non-commercial), NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN)

Published: 10 March 2020

Sine Littlewood outlines the key areas where research charities can work with the NIHR, to accelerate health and care research and bring benefits to patients faster.

“Identifying appropriate opportunities is a challenge - the NIHR appears so large and broad in terms of remit and activity”

“We have limited time and no idea where to begin”

“The NIHR is a very complex organization. That’s the main challenge!”

Do any of these statements ring true for you? These were some of the responses that we received when we surveyed research charities about their understanding of the NIHR and how to work with us.

At the NIHR, we believe that by working with research charities on high quality research in areas of shared interest, we can ensure research provides the maximum benefit for patients and the public and that as funders we make best use of our resources and expertise.

But this feedback from our survey made it clear to us that in order to achieve this ambition, we needed to make it easier for charities to engage with our complex organisation. In response, we’ve been working over the past year to clarify the key areas where we can work together, and how charities can contact us.

Refining our offer

Our first step was to bring together key people who worked with charities from the seven NIHR coordinating centres. This group formed the NIHR Research Charity Engagement Programme Board, which I chair.

Part of the programme’s remit was to clarify what each part of the NIHR could offer charities, and to bring them together as a single offer. We identified all the points at which a charity might engage with the NIHR, and grouped these into seven areas:

  • Understand the research landscape
  • Identify research needs
  • Fund research
  • Plan and deliver research
  • Disseminate research
  • Attract, develop and retain researchers
  • Share expertise and develop best practice

We understand that many charities already know about some of these areas and work with us in lots of different ways that don’t fit neatly into these categories. But we hope that by defining these areas, charities can find out about all the ways they can interact with us and consider working with parts of the NIHR they may not have been aware of to date.

Once we’d worked out what we could offer, we created key messages to describe what working with the NIHR in each of these areas entailed and the benefits for charities of doing so.

When we tested our initial messages with some people who work in research charities, we were told that some of the messaging felt one way instead of mutually collaborative. This got us thinking - and we realised that some elements of our offer were free NIHR services that we were signposting people to, rather than opportunities for true collaboration.

So, we refined the messages in each area to be clear about where we are offering NIHR services and resources, where we can mutually exchange expertise and where there are opportunities for collaboration

Creating a shop window

Our next step was to create a dedicated area on the NIHR website for charities – for the first time there is a single place where you can find all opportunities for working with the NIHR. The landing page outlines the main areas of our offer, the benefits of working with us, and whether each element is about accessing a service, exchanging expertise or collaborating. Then there is a web page for each of the seven areas of our offer, to explain them in more detail.

We’ve tried to avoid talking too much about NIHR’s structure - instead explaining what things do, not what they’re called.

We’ve included case studies to provide practical examples of how we’ve worked with a charity in a certain area, such as how we’ve collaborated with Autistica to maximise the impact of autism research.

Signposting our front door

Another issue reported to us by charities in the past is that getting ‘in’ with the NIHR depended on who you knew or which bit of NIHR you’d come across in the past - there was no single point of contact for research charities.

To tackle this, we’ve created a single ‘front door’ for research charities through a contact form on our website. This form, and the triage system behind it, means that we can do all the leg work for you in terms of finding the best person in the NIHR for you to talk to. It also means that we have a better overview of all charity interactions with the NIHR and can make sure our staff are joined up when several people are talking to the same charity.

One point to mention is that the majority of the opportunities with the NIHR are bespoke rather than off the shelf, so I’d encourage you to get in touch with us so we can start a conversation about your charity’s needs.

Let us know your views

We want to make sure that the new web pages work for you and contain the information and details you want. We’d love to know what you think about them, so we can develop them further. Let us know on [email protected].