How to build good relationships with the researchers your charity funds

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I share some great advice from three experts on why medical research charities should spend time building good relationships with their researchers – and how best to do that. 

A key part of the work done by communications professionals within charities is talking about the research funded by the charity. And on this blog, I focus a lot on the ‘lay audiences’ of medical research charities – supporters, the public, people affected by illnesses and conditions. 

But part of this work wouldn’t be possible without another key group of people – the researchers who the charity funds. 

These researchers’ main point of contact at the charity will likely be the person or team managing their research grant. In my experience, many researchers are keen to get involved in the charity’s work, including communications and fundraising. So, for Comms staff in the charity (and others), building good relationships with researchers can be mutually beneficial. 

For this blog, I spoke to three experts from top medical research charities about why and how they build good relationships with the researchers they fund. They are:

  • Rachel Kahn, Research Communications Manager at Blood Cancer UK.
  • Dr Maria Tennant, Head of Communications at Kidney Research UK.
  • Dr Leanne Grech, Senior Research Engagement Officer at British Heart Foundation.

Why is it important for your charity to build good relationships with your researchers?

Rachel: For me, building relationships is vital for charities to bring supporters closer to the work we do. It’s easy to slip into a role where charities can be “gatekeepers” of their researchers. Actually, it’s important for researchers to speak directly to people affected by the work they’re doing, and vice versa.

Having strong relationships with researchers and getting to know them better makes this a far more seamless process. You get to know researchers on a more personal level. So you understand what sort of comms they might feel comfortable contributing to.

Maria: As a charity, you need to communicate what you’re funding and the successes that happen along the way. So when they have a paper published, something that your charity has funded, you need to make sure that you can tell people about what it’s achieved. And you’ll only be able to make the most of that if the researcher tells you in advance. 

However, you’re not in front of their mind most of the time. Having some kind of engagement reminds them that you exist – even if it’s just to drop them a note and say hi every now and again. If you don’t have relationships and they don’t tell you their news, you have fewer stories to talk about. 

Knowing a bit about them as people is also important. There’s often an element of the story that comes out that makes it more human. You can get stuff that you wouldn’t get from reading their papers. 

Leanne: Research is at the heart of what we do at the British Heart Foundation, and therefore so are our researchers. Their success is our success, whether that’s in the form of a PhD student with a promising first set of results, or an established clinician in the final stages of a clinical trial.

Our triumphs are also theirs – featuring their life saving research in a press release picked up by top media outlets, or an event series viewed by thousands, means more exposure of their work and more support to the cause from the general public.

It’s a holistic circle that is very much dependent on a good relationship between the researchers doing the research and us in the comms team shouting about it. The stronger the relationship, the more engaging the product, the more successful the outcome.

Do you have a process for building relationships with your researchers?

Rachel: Pre-COVID I would visit researchers frequently to meet face-to-face. But unfortunately, I’m unable to do this at the moment. I make sure I follow our researchers on Twitter if they have it. I’ll interact when they publish a new paper or something similar. It’s just a gentle reminder I’m there!

Maria: From a research comms perspective, we try and start as early as possible. We listen to the grant funding committees and learn a bit about their grant to start with. If the researcher is on those committees, we see them talk and get a sense of how good they are communicating.

Our first contact is usually to sign off a lay summary we’ve written for them. At the same time, we can say: “actually we’d really like to work with you. Can you send us a photograph, tell us something, what does this really mean for you?” It means you’ve got that relationship off on a good foot. For our fellowship grants, it’s even more important to do that. We’re funding the person, not just the project. 

Pre-COVID we would like to go to meet people where they work, in the lab, their own environment. So when we want to organise a lab tour, for example, we’ll know where to go or know who’s a good communicator.  

Leanne: We start building relationships with our researchers early on. We send new researchers a welcome pack, for example, when they join the BHF family. We also organise induction days for PhD students.

To keep them connected to the BHF, we have a researcher noticeboard and a monthly newsletter. We provide information about upcoming events, opportunities, grants and fellowships for the cardiovascular research community. We also have the BHF Alumni, a free membership programme designed to support our community of researchers across the world. And finally, we have social media accounts (e.g. @BHFProfessional on Twitter) designed especially for them.

For us, our main priority for establishing a good relationship with researchers is that we work around their schedule, and not the other way round. We appreciate and recognise that researchers often have a lot going on, so we try our best to not overburden them. We also make sure to keep them informed and up to date with project developments. And we give them the opportunity to make any amends before the final product is released.

What impact has this relationship had on the charity? 

Rachel: Our community of researchers are wonderful and are up for doing lots of comms activities – the weird and wonderful! It means that the charity doesn’t just do ad hoc research content. We can do bigger campaigns around research, thanks to the support of our scientists. 

Maria: I think by building these relationships we’ve been able to tell better stories. We’ve also found out more about the people behind the scenes. A really good example is the story that we did about one of our researchers in Cardiff. A visit to meet the team (pre-COVID) revealed she had an amazing story, and one of the team followed up by doing a bigger interview and a piece about her for our supporter magazine, with her on the front cover. Of course, it did include information her science, but it was more about the person behind the research. It was a much richer piece as a result.

So firstly, if I hadn’t met her, I would never have found all of that information. And secondly, because we did it on an informal basis, people were more likely to just chat rather than it being a really formal interview.

Another benefit is that we can ask for their input on short notice. For example, if we get media enquiries about particular areas, we can pick up the phone to a researcher and say, “We’ve had a query about this. Can you help us?” If they’ve met us, they know who we are, and it’s then much easier us to be helpful for journalists. 

Leanne: If a project is successful and the researcher is happy with the outcome, they will be more receptive to participate in another project further down the line. For the BHF as a whole, that means a network of researchers we can rely on, not only in the lab or clinic, but also to help raise money for our charity.

And what’s the response been from your researchers? What do you think they get from this relationship?

Maria: I think they do. For example, we have a really good relationship with one of our London researchers. And she often drops me a note just to say, “Can I just ask for some advice about this? I’m thinking about doing this, who should I talk to?” And likewise, I will do the same about something related to what she’s doing. You become more like a colleague in a way, rather than just someone that’s getting the money we’re sending out. Our researchers often say that they feel much more part of the Kidney Research UK community. 

I guess we always try to explain what’s in it for them as researchers. Working with us helps them develop the skills that they need to communicate their work on a wider basis. And to ultimately get grants from other funders as well. 

Leanne: Yes, they definitely appreciate being involved. They also value the effort we put in to showcase their research in the best light possible. I think what they also appreciate is the fact that we often tie their project with a patient story, reminding them of how crucial their work is. 

It is also important for them to learn about and talk to our staff, supporters, and volunteers, as well as understand their motivations for wanting to support or work for the BHF. We offer all of that and more when we ask them to feature in our communications.

What would you recommend to other medical research charities who are just starting to think about this?

Rachel: For me, I think it’s so important to try to build a personal relationship with your researchers, not just a professional one. Don’t forget that your researchers are sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. Find out what makes them tick outside of research, find common ground – they are more likely to remember you for a start. 

If you’re asking them to contribute to comms, why not ask for a “fun fact” – our job as communicators is to humanise research and the people behind it. Giving people insight into the lives of our researchers is a great way to do this. 

And don’t be too precious about the ‘professional’ side of the relationship – researchers have a sense of humour and are people just like the rest of us. If you want to create a real relationship, you’re going to have to reveal parts of yourself and your life too. A relationship works both ways. 

Maria: I think you really have to try to make time for building these relationships. I know it’s hard when you’re up against it with lots of other deadlines, but in the long run, it will really pay off. We started off with getting our heads around the portfolio that we fund now. Learning their names and where they are, and then making a plan to go out and meet people wherever you can. It’s easier to do that now we know you don’t have to physically go to meet people – you can talk on Zoom with a group of researchers quite easily. 

Leanne: Do not treat researchers like they are a means to an end. Value their contribution. Due to their line of work, they have incredibly powerful stories to tell – stories that can help raise awareness of the power of research and increase charity funds that will ultimately fund further science. Forming good relationships with researchers will benefit both the researcher and your organisation.

How do you build relationships with researchers at your charity? Do you have any advice you’d like to share? Get in touch, either by email, tweet me @DrRichardBerks or follow me on LinkedIn.

A huge thanks to Rachel, Maria, and Leanne for their time and expertise.

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