How other charities… organise research projects

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Your charity funds lots of fantastic research to solve some of the world’s biggest health problems. But how do you help your supporters make sense of it all? It’s time to think about how you organise your research.

Before we get into the details, the first thing to consider (as always) is who this is for.

Audiences

an audience in an auditorium

There are two types of audiences who might be interested in the research projects your charity funds: your external audience (supporters and other visitors to your website), and your internal audience (your colleagues and charity staff).

Since this information is going on your website, clearly it should mostly focus on the needs of your external audiences. But if you design a useful way to organise your research projects, your colleagues will probably find it helpful too – just another way you can help them become research experts.

For example, when I was working at Breast Cancer Now, one my responsibility was writing information about newly funded research projects. We had our research project summaries on our website for our supporters, but for staff, we also had the very same summarises saved as Word docs in a folder on our intranet.

Eventually, we did away with the intranet folder and directed colleagues to the website instead. It was the obvious choice – the information on the website was the same anyway, but thanks to some great work from our digital team it was a lot easier to find the project they wanted. It also meant our team didn’t have to spend so much time helping our colleagues wade through our intranet.

The big long list of research projects (and other options)

book with a list of words

One way that a lot of charities set out the research projects on their website is in a big long list. These are often searchable or can be filtered to help visitors whittle it down.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Having all your projects in one place does have the advantage that all the information is there, waiting to be found.

But therein lies the problem that often comes with these lists:  people are presented with everything, with no guidance as to what they should look at or what’s the most important for them.

It’s choice overload – although it seems like a good idea to give people everything to choose from, what often happens is they feel paralysed by the vast range of options in front of them. And in case it isn’t obvious, that’s not a good thing if you’re hoping to inspire people to donate.

In any case, a big long list of research projects should never ever be the first thing that people see when they come to your charity’s research pages. I’ve written before about the key things that should be on your research front pages. These pages are your big opportunity to clearly get across why your charity funds research, and your vision for the future. This is not helped by throwing down the gauntlet of a list of projects in the hope that your supporters will succeed in making sense of it all.

Here’s two examples of charities that have taken different approaches.

On their research front page, Cancer Research UK directs you to browse through their research by cancer type or topic, or find out about projects happening near you. Clicking through on any of these pages (e.g. prostate cancer) will direct you towards a handful of examples of current research projects, some major achievements, and related news. It’s nice and clear, and it keeps it to the highlights. Nowhere on their website is there a big long list of projects for you to search through – the hard work has been done for you.

screenshoot of Parkinson's UK website

Parkinson’s UK have a nice way of presenting key projects, in ways that will make sense to their supporters. Right at the top of the page is a major clinical trial which was the subject of a BBC documentary in 2019. Or you can read about cutting-edge research into stem cells, or studies to improve quality of life for people affected by the condition. Further down, you can learn about the very latest projects funded by the charity.

If after all that, you still want a big long list of their research project, you can have it – there’s a link to a PDF halfway down the page. But Parkinson’s UK have made it so easy for people to find some key research examples that it isn’t necessary.

I’m not trying to diss the big long list – they can be useful. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you provide supporters with. Make it easy for them to understand the research they’re helping to support by picking out key examples of your charity’s work.

Ways of organising research projects

Whether you decide to provide a few highlights or everything you’ve got, there are lots of ways you can organise your charity’s research projects. Here’s how different charities have broken their research down to make it easier to understand.

Disease type

screenshot of BHF website

A common way to divide research up is by subtype of the health condition your charity focuses on.

This is most obvious for charities with a broad remit, such as Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation, or the mental health research charity MQ. But charities like Diabetes UK, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and The Brain Tumour Charity also divide their work up into different subtypes of their respective illnesses.

Supporters often have a personal connection to the disease, and so it’s quite likely they might be interested in research looking into a particular subtype. Make it easy for them to find it.

Research topic

Another popular way to categorise research is by topic, or theme – for example, prevention, treatments, early diagnosis, and quality of life.

These themes must be tailored for individual charities. For example, compare how Cancer Research UK and MS Society present the different areas of their work.

screenshoot of the MS Society website

Being able to categorise projects in this way is makes it easier to answer queries from the public. It can also help potential donors with particular interests find projects they could support

Location

map of the world with pins in it

A few charities let people browse through or filter their research by location. The theory is you’re your typical supporter is more interested in projects happening near them.

There are a few good reasons why you might want to help people find research near them. Volunteers and fundraisers may want to know how the money raised in their community is spent locally, and not just whisked away to a head office in London. Corporate partners may be interested in supporting projects local to their sites or branches. Some donors may only fund projects in certain regions. (And sometimes, certain research centres need to be mentioned for ‘political reasons’ too).

If you are going to organise your work by different areas, give people the highlights and the strengths of the work going on in that region or institution. Does research in that city focus on a particular research topic or disease type? Is that university a hotbed for innovative data research, or the place where discoveries get translated into clinical trials? Make it clear why people should care that research is happening near them.

Serving people your research highlights

screenshot from the Brain Tumour Charity website

Even with different ways to categorise your research, you can still make it easy for people and serve them a few highlights. This could be some of the most recent projects that you have funded, or a study that you’ve hand-selected as worthy of a greater audience.

Parkinson’s UK, as previously mentioned, prominently display an important clinical trial that they’re funding. The Brain Tumour Charity shares both their latest projects and a ‘researcher of the month’. Both are neat ways of directing people to one project, rather than giving them dozens and expecting visitors to sift through them themselves.

Completed vs Active projects

pyramid in a desert

I’ve seen a few provide all the projects that have ever been funded, and let people filter by whether it is an ongoing active project, or an old completed project.

I’m not sure what the point of this is. Maybe they’d like to keep the projects around to show people what has been achieved. But there are lots of great ways you can (and should) share your charity’s research achievements. Providing a long list of old projects, and expecting people to go through them, isn’t one of them.

The Brain Tumour Charity and Alzheimer’s Society have separate sections for old and new projects. I think this is a good compromise, as it allows them to refer to back to old projects when they need to, without getting in the way of their new and ongoing projects.

I think I’ll tackle the question of what to do with completed projects in a separate blog.

Grant type

I’ve seen some charities allow people to filter by the type of research grant – for example, pilot grants, project grants, fellowships, or PhD studentships. I can’t imagine a typical visitor to your website would be interested in this. Why bother?

Your fellows may be fabulous, and your PhD students stellar – but why should your supporters care? To them, they’re just another brilliant researcher doing important work – what does the type of grant they received have to do with it?

Tags/categories

index cards with different labels for recipes

Some charities have also allowed people to search for or filter research projects by tags or categories. I briefly mentioned tags in the blog about research project summary webpages, but to summarise, it can allow people to groups of projects  they have a special interest in.

For example, Stroke Association have tags like ‘fatigue’ and ‘small vessel disease’ to help people find research project (and other content) related to that topic.

How do we work this out?

two people discussing a project

As you can see there’s a lot of different options for organising research – some more valuable than others, in my opinion. But how might your charity group your research projects?

A good way to guide these decisions is to get the opinions of your supporters. This can be done indirectly. For example, find out what questions get frequently asked about your research on social media, or via your fundraising colleagues. This can be a good guide as to what people are interested in, or what they’re currently struggling to find on your website.

If possible, you could also consider getting some of your supporters to be directly involved in helping you figure it out. Gather a few of them together and ask them what interests them the most about your research, or what would they be keenest to share with other people.

It’s important to remember that the aim of organising your research is to help your audiences understand your work better. It’s not to give them an endless menu of options to choose from. Keep it focussed on what your supporters needs, and they’ll reward you with their loyalty – and donations too!


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