Spencer Foundation Small Research Grants


The Foundation currently accepts proposals for small research grants, with a budget limit of $50,000.  The foundation leaves the duration of the project up to the PI/research team to determine, with the expectationthat it will be appropriate for the work being proposed.  The foundation currently receives over 500 proposals per year, of which they can fund roughly 10%.

Grant proposals covering any topic that falls within Spencer's mission can be submitted through our general small grants program. Historically, the work funded through these grants has spanned, both across and within studies, a range of disciplines, including education, psychology, sociology, economics, history, and anthropology.

The following examples of recently funded small grants illustrate the diversity of what these grants support.

  • an experimental study of how college students use visual representations in solving math problems
  • an examination of changes in attitudes about the role and purpose of education among youth in the Swat Valley of Pakistan from before the Taliban to the present
  • a qualitative study in elementary and middle schools successful with populations of low-income minority students that aims specifically to reveal within-school "human capital" practices that might lead to success in recruiting, retaining, and supporting successful teachers
  • a mixed-methods study focusing on the different types of knowledge novice and experienced teachers draw on in teaching for reading comprehension

Principal Investigators (PIs) and Co-PIs applying for a Research Grant must have an earned doctorate in an academic discipline or professional field, or appropriate experience in an education research-related profession.

The PI must be affiliated with a college, university, research facility, school district, or cultural institution that is willing to serve as the fiscal agent if the grant is awarded. Research Grant proposals from individuals are not eligible.

Proposals are accepted from the U.S. and internationally, however all proposals must be submitted in English and budgets must be proposed in U.S. Dollars.

PIs and Co-PIs may only hold one active research grant from the Foundation at a time. Simultaneous submissions to Spencer from PIs and Co-PIs are discouraged due to this policy.

Small Grants Budgets

  • Small Grant budgets may not exceed $50,000 and may not include indirect cost charges.
  • Small Grant budgets may include direct expenses of the project such as Salaries, Benefits, Fees/Stipends, Supplies, Transcription, Equipment, Travel, etc.

Q: I have an idea for a project and would like feedback from a program officer. Is it possible to contact someone?

A: As a matter of course, they do not provide advice or feedback on small grant proposals prior to review. However, if you have a question about whether or not your project fits within the funding mission of the Foundation, please email a brief description of it to Annie Brinkman, Grants Manager, at abrinkman@spencer.org.

Small Grants Review Criteria

The review process for small grant proposals is highly competitive. The foundation currently receives over 500 proposals per year, of which they can fund roughly 10%. Submitted proposals are first reviewed by program staff. Due to the large number of proposals they receive, they are unable to obtain external reviews for all proposals they receive. Common reasons for declining proposals prior to external review include the following:

  • The project has a limited or inadequate conceptual or theoretical framework. Because the Foundation’s goal in supporting research is to advance understanding of education as a means of improvement, it is essential that proposals make clear the ways in which the proposed research will contribute to or challenge current understandings of education, and the possible connections of findings to educational improvement.
  • The project has a limited or inadequate discussion of research design and methods. The kinds of details needed in a proposal depend on the type of research involved, but without sufficient information about research setting, data collection, sample size and characteristics, and analytic  methods, reviewers cannot judge the probability that a study will yield valuable findings. It is important not only to provide such details as are necessary to evaluate the quality and feasibility of the proposed research, but also to show a clear and strong connection between, on one hand, the research design and methods and, on the other hand, the study’s conceptual framework and research questions. 
  • The primary purpose of the proposed project is not research. Because the Foundation’s mission is to support educational research, they do not fund projects that do not have research as their central purpose. This means that they do not fund, among other types of projects, projects that primarily involve writing a book based on data-gathering and analysis that would be largely completed at the start of the grant and projects that are primarily devoted to developing and/or implementing a particular educational program or curriculum.
  • The proposed research is an evaluation study with the primary aim of assessing whether or not a given program worked. Successful program evaluation projects at Spencer are those designed to explore the processes, mechanisms, and conditions that lead to particular outcomes, so that researchers not primarily interested in the given program could still benefit from the study’s findings.

When they do send small grant proposals out for external review, they send each proposal to two reviewers from a panel with a wide range of substantive and methodological expertise. They ask reviewers to comment on the following:

  • significance of research questions
  • appropriateness of research design
  • adequacy of budget and time-line
  • potential of the principal investigator(s) to conduct a study of high quality
  • overall recommendation

External reviews weigh heavily in the decision to fund or not fund a given proposal. However, given large numbers of proposals in each application cycle, they often have to make choices, based on the expected quality and contribution of proposed studies, within a pool of promising submissions.