Labs can't work without money. This chapter discusses the various funding options and their pros and cons, and how to plan for a Lab's sustainability.
Published onOct 29, 2019
Funding and Sustainability
Labs can't work without money. There are many funding mechanisms that might be applied to a Lab, from structural institutional funding to external funding, each with their own effect on the sustainability of the Lab. This chapter discusses the various funding options and their pros and cons, and how to plan for a Lab's sustainability.
Funding models depend on organisational context and individual Lab plans - but also inform what can be possible with a Lab and where the future direction of a Lab may go.
Structural organisational funding
Structural funding, as opposed to the funding of a pilot project, running only for a limited time, means that the Lab is planned to be sustained over a longer period. So whilst the actual sum allocated to a Lab can fluctuate on a year-by-year basis, the period for funding should at least match the period of the institution's strategic plan. The KB Lab of the National Library of the Netherlands is an example of this.
Offers the most secure and sustainable form of funding of activities, people and contents of the Lab.
Clearly embeds the Lab in the general organisational structure.
Rather rigid as a type of funding, as the allocated budget cannot be used for day-to-day activities of the organisation, which proves challenging for institutions with little funding.
Labs can get caught in a Catch-22: they require structural funding to set up the Lab, but to gain this funding, they need to be already established to demonstrate their value.
Short-term organisational funding
Labs often start as pilot projects, having initially to prove their worth to the organisation and are only provided with temporary short-term funding. Temporary funding in itself is problematic as it impedes job stability and renders Lab activities uncertain. If the Lab is set up as a pilot project, it's advisable to identify and plan for funding rounds in case the Lab is a success.
When a Lab is funded over a limited period, this time frame shouldn't be too short (for example, 4 years rather than 2). This allows the Lab to plan its activities and establish itself. Evaluation of the Lab can be planned as part of its activities and can be outsourced to an external company to ensure independence. Alternatively, staff from another department in the same organisation could take on the role of a 'critical friend'. The evaluation results should be considered specifically and not affect the overall funding of the Lab. As soon as a decision about the future of the Lab is made — whether it's to discontinue its activities, integrate it into the organisation, or to acquire new or additional funding — it should be communicated to the Lab team.
Short-term funding often includes the intention to integrate a Lab into the organisation and hence serves as a precursor to structural funding, making it an overall sustainable funding option. KB Tech Lab at the Royal Danish Library, and ÖNB Labs at the Austrian National Library are examples of Labs that are based on this type of funding.
Allows institutions to explore what benefits a Lab can have.
Provides time for a Lab to build a longer-term financial plan.
Introduces uncertainty to the work of the Lab, putting a strain on all aspects, including — and possibly most importantly — its people.
Requires time resources to plan the Lab's future beyond funding cycles.
Staff are likely to leave insecure job setups, and look for new employment prior to the end of their contract.
Short-term external funding
Short-term external funds allow for a Lab to expand its resources on a project basis. There are various funding options for cultural heritage institutions both nationally and internationally. See for example the funding information of the European Commission, or the grants information of the National Endowment for Humanities in the United States, or from the Andrew W. Mellon for other parts of the world. To learn more about funding opportunities, contact the national funding body or governmental funding contact point. There may also be other directories of information about philanthropic organisations that may fund the Lab. The establishment of BL Labs is an example of philanthropic funding.
Short-term external funds are not sustainable, but they provide opportunities to explore the option of a Lab, to continue a certain aspect of a Lab once short-term organisational funding ends, or to grow activities not covered by structural funding.
If external funding means additional funding, it provides opportunities to grow or continue the Lab.
Acquiring external funding minimises the financial risk for the organisation.
By teaming up with external partners, the Lab's network grows.
Acquiring additional funding is a time-consuming process and requires particular skills.
Might lead to additional requirements such as frequent reporting or public engagement activities.
Operational funding may not be included in external funding models, so operational costs may have to be covered by the parent organisation.
The acquisition of short-term external funding may lead to dependency on this model, or expectations of further acquisition by the parent organisation.
Funding Models for Specific Lab Activities
Options for funding activities
Labs can also acquire additional funds by charging user fees for certain activities, through patron donations, by crowdfunding specific activities, or by organising events that generate income. Fundraising is a specific skill that can be difficult to acquire. If fundraising is planned as a source of income, this should be taken into account when selecting the team, or fundraising should be provided by the parent organisation.
Additional funding provides opportunities to grow or continue the Lab.
When using crowdfunding, the Lab community is able to contribute to the development of the Lab.
This type of external funding is only meant for short-term activities.
Acquiring additional funding is a time-consuming process.
Fundraising requires a specific skill which might not be available to all team members.
Might add requirements and expectations, such as frequent reporting or public engagement activities.
Charging fees for Lab services raises expectations with paying customers which need to be met to sustain reputation.
In addition to monetary donations, a Lab can allocate in-kind contributions, such as sponsored hardware, volunteered time, or crowdsourced improvements to data. Crowdsourcing contributions represent significant people hours, and this level of (volunteer) resourcing can be just as valuable as monetary donations.
Volunteered people-hours can be very valuable for a Lab as they can be directed to contribute clean(er) or tagged data.
Involving the wider Lab network is good for building cohesion and a sense of community to facilitate collaboration.
Hardware contributions might allow people to work with new components without any costs.
Working with the crowd can be time-consuming and a quality control mechanism needs to be put in place.
The Lab's community might also expect something in return for their contribution.
Might add requirements and expectations, such as frequent reporting or public engagement activities.
Funding is inextricably linked to planning activities necessary to build a Lab. The amount of funding needed for a nascent Lab depends on the vision for the Lab, the services it plans to provide, and the staffing model needed to create and provide these services.
If a Lab has to work with very limited funds, it is particularly important to prioritise expenses. These priorities are firmly connected to the goals of the Lab. Examples of Lab expenses are detailed later in this chapter.
When faced with a limited budget, aiming for flexible budgeting is advisable. Don't commit to expensive year-long service provider contracts or large infrastructure purchases. Adopt software as a service (SaaS) models for cloud platforms and servers.
One element that is not to be kept flexible or limited are the staff costs. Labs stand and fall with their people and staff should therefore be valued at all costs.
The following section explores and displays different types of Lab budgets.
1. The operational budget of a Lab may be heavily focused towards a residency programme for researchers, as well as including a large outreach activity expenditure and budget capacity for travel and networking, challenges and external expert reports.
Note that the staff, administration and technical infrastructure costs are covered by the parent organisation in this example.
2. A budget from an external grant might be focused largely toward hiring additional staff and hosting fellowships or residencies. New projects require additional equipment and supplies, and further costs may include travel, consultancy fees and conferences.
3. A short-term budget for a Lab is likely to be heavily allocated towards staff costs: three staff members tends to be a minimum. As well as this, funds contribute to training, cloud services costs, events and travel.
Division of budget
This section describes seven distinct areas that entail budgetary considerations. Whilst other areas undoubtedly exist, these categories persist across a variety of GLAM Labs and contribute to a healthy and thriving Lab.
Staffing directly supports the operational goals of the Lab. Labs are people-based and people-driven. Arguably, total staff expenditure may form a clear indicator of the sustainability of a Lab. Generally, it can be said that the more a Lab spends on its people, the more sustainable its activities, and the services and tools produced.
Depending on the cost and funding model used within a particular Lab's environment, operational costs are provided directly by the parent organisation or as a separate budget item for the Lab. They may include things such as facilities (if the Lab has a physical location), office equipment, stationery materials, promotional materials, website hosting, publishing costs, accounting and legal advice.
Hardware / software
Functioning as a subset of operational costs, funding related to hardware and software form a large part of a Lab's budget. If Labs consist of people providing activities based on digital data, then hardware and software necessitate its work. Based on the models of how hardware and software are supported within an organisation, these services may be locally-hosted, provided via cloud service, or maintained through the parent organisation's IT department.
Entertaining / Cake / Coffee Budget
An important part of the Lab are its partners — both internal and external — and its community. This very often involves social activities such as having lunch and meeting for coffee. Creating a budget specifically targeting network activities helps the team to plan these activities and makes partners feel welcome. Little gestures of hospitality can go a long way and may greatly impact a Lab's work. Meeting a collection curator or partner for coffee, and being able to budget for meetings of this kind might be a decisive factor in acquiring a new collection, creating a new partnership, or starting a new project.
Competitions help Labs to build community and create impact. Running competitions, however, does have cost implications and should be factored in as a necessary aspect of budgeting. Some notable examples of Lab competitions are the British Library's BL Labs Competition and BL Labs Award and the State Library of New South Wales' DX Labs Young Creative Technologist Award, as shown below.
Example: Young Creative Technologist Award, DX Labs The State Library of NSW DX Lab offered a unique opportunity for a young creative technologist to undertake an innovative project of their choice. The Young Creative Technologist Award, proudly supported by Macquarie Group, gave a young person aged 18-25 the opportunity to create an innovative digital experience utilising some of the Library’s 12 million+ digitised images and included a $10,000 cash prize.
Analogous to competitions, fellowships and researchers-in-residence offer essential opportunities to a Lab and might have a fundamental impact. With regards to funding a fellow, two choices can be made: either a lump sum can be provided to the researcher, or the researcher can be seconded to the organisation. It is easier to budget with a lump sum, as in the example below, but this might require a researcher to work below their usual salary.
Example: Researcher-in-residence, KB Lab The KB Lab hosts two researchers-in-residence per year through secondment for 0.5 FTE for 6 months. An approximate €50.000 a year is spent on the secondment of two early career researchers, institutional support from the Lab team, and all overheads.
Events such as introducing competitions and fellowships, the hosting of hackathons or symposia, can be core Lab activities; introducing Lab innovations and experiments to a public audience comes with a variety of costs, for people, venues, food, and equipment, as shown below in the diagram. Event budgets should form a key part of the Lab budget if the hosting of events are part of its plan.
A difficult yet crucial question is how to ensure Labs are sustainable. Having said that, a Lab's components may not need to be sustainable at all, and a Lab's sustainability need not necessarily be a measure of success. The goal(s) of the specific Lab in question help(s) to define what kind, and to which degree, sustainability is relevant.
Sustainability versus continuity
First, it is important to draw a distinction between sustainability and continuity. Where a sustainable Lab is a living organism — possibly growing, but more likely evolving — a continuous Lab is static. It will be managed, its activities will be done, but no effort is put into the development of the Lab organisation. In this case it might be questionable whether the Lab is really a Lab or simply a Lab-branded activity. The diagram below demonstrates the difference between a static, non-evolving team and a constantly changing, growing Lab — including successes and failures.
Thinking about sustainability
Defining the goals of a Lab at an early stage, described in Chapter 4, also creates an opportunity to discuss its sustainability and future. Naturally, those goals might include a variety of levels of sustainability and so will the resulting services and activities. However, it should be clear from the beginning to which degree, and in which form, sustainability is a goal to strive for and what the required actions and consequences will be when the Lab or particular aspects are not sustained.
Examples of sustainability success
Goal: Introducing Research and Development (R&D) into the organisation
When a Lab is set up as the R&D hub of an organisation, it is crucial that sustainability is a priority, especially with regards to the organisational setup of the Lab and its team. It should be(come) an independent part of the organisation, yet be implemented inclusively. It is important that there is a financial and strategic commitment from the institution (i.e. buy-in) from the implementation of the Lab if it is to be sustainable in to the long-term.
Goal: Clustering (new) research activities
The term Lab is frequently used to signify activities that originally have no specific place in the organisation, such as data delivery and externally funded research projects. These Labs are essentially conducting business as usual and are required to plan how longer-term implementation can be achieved, once their scope and requirements are clarified. Regarding sustainability of these research activities, it may be more about emerging into the organisation than it is about having or sustaining an actual Lab.
Goal: Changing the mindset of the organisation
A Lab can be used as an instrument of change as it requires a different way of working: within teams, with the collections, and also with external partners. If the goal of the Lab is to initiate this change in working, the Lab is to be absorbed back into the institution: this is a form of sustainability in itself as the Lab's knowledge and culture remains.
Goal: Working with users
When a Lab is set up in order to have space to collaborate with users, sustainability is very important to consider as external partners might be dependent on the Lab. If this dependency is not desirable, the temporary or ad-hoc nature of the Lab needs to be clearly communicated to its users.
Case Study: The evolution of the KB Lab
The KB Lab of the KB National Library of the Netherlands was officially launched in June 2014 and has changed and evolved since. This case study describes its evolution with special regard to the subject of sustainability.
The Lab was proposed to KB's management in October 2013. The proposal was developed in 2013 by an internal working group discussing the need, scope and possibilities of having a Library Lab. The Lab was originally designed to showcase research department activities, internal prototypes and externally developed tools, in addition to working well with KB collections. The proposal further envisioned a physical Lab space for researchers, offering technical infrastructure to bring together pieces of software and demonstrations originally spread out across hosting services of the KB and its partners.
The projects of the embedded researchers were initiated shortly after the launch of the Lab under the name Onderzoeker te Gast. With this programme, early career researchers were invited (and funded) to join the Lab for a period of up to six months to collaborate with the team on a project of their proposal. The first three projects (September 2014 to June 2015) were set up as pilots with a lightweight selection process. An evaluation was also built in with a 'Go / No Go' moment. After these pilot projects the Lab continued the programme with slight alterations. A call for proposals and a submission form were introduced in the process, using a selection committee of external partners. Also, two instead of three placements were decided on. Since then, other small adaptations have been made, such as the introduction of a current researcher-in-residence on the selection committee, and the decision to accept independent researchers into the programme.
A physical dedicated space has not been set up. However, the embedded researchers work in the offices of the research department and the general rooms of the KB have been used for Lab events.
The virtual space of the Lab however has grown quite a bit. It went from a small server to two larger ones and from having a hacked-together website to a designed web presence within the KB web domain at https://lab.kb.nl/. The development of the new website in 2016 meant the goals and user groupsof the Lab were being revisited and sharpened to the current needs.
When the KB Lab was introduced in 2014, a new policy plan was being developed. The Lab was not specifically mentioned in the previous strategic plan of the library, but an important paragraph provided the backing of the organisation and the freedom to develop the Lab:
'They are researchers and developers who use the large textual datasets that the KB has built up with its partners during the past few years. More and more humanities researchers use tools to extract information and visualise data, to get a grip on datasets that can no longer be analysed in the traditional way (big data). The KB actively supports this form of Humanities, Digital Humanities' (p. 10).
The development of the Lab has since then produced tools, datasets, made new connections, joined networks, and collaborated in externally funded projects. This has led to the current strategic plan (2019-2022), which states:
'In addition to the results of mass digitisation, we also grant access to controlled data collections for research purposes, such as data from the Dutch Bibliography and the DBNL corpus. We work alongside researchers in the KB LAB to develop new knowledge and tools for use with our digitised collection' (p. 16).
The fact that the KB provided the KB Lab with a safe environment by offering sustainable funding, an integrated part in the policy plans and organisation in which to work, meant the Lab had to chance to develop into what fits the KB. Experiments were encouraged and lessons learned (also negative) seen as valuable additions to the business. In the coming years, the KB Lab team will continue the conversation with the organisation on how to move from prototype and research to business as usual.
Retirement and decommission
As discussed in the previous chapter, a Lab and its components do not have to be sustained. By thinking about sustainability — and the possible lack thereof — in the design process of the Lab, steps can be put in place for a time when the decision is made to retire a Lab or its activities or outputs.
Stopping an activity
A specific activity might not be relevant and suitable for a Lab in the long term. This may happen more often than in the daily business of the organisation due to the flexible and experimental nature of Labs. Having a step-by-step guide helps finalise the output and make it easier to stop the activity in a productive and concrete manner.
Retiring the Lab
If a Lab is to be decommissioned, two main options come to mind:
Integrating the activities of the Lab into the parent organisation.
When a Lab's funding ends or there is no more need for standalone Lab-style work in the parent organisation, the Lab activities and team can be transferred to the parent organisation. It is pertinent to map each activity and the strengths of the team to ensure a good fit within the organisation. Staff may leave as a result, as it is the nature of the Lab-style work rather than the institution that attracted them to the job in the first place. If this happens, preserving their knowledge within the organisation is key.
Finalising all output, storing it for preservation.
Ideally when a Lab is to be shut down, its staff and services are integrated into the organisation. However, when that is not possible, all outputs and services might have to be resolved. Closing a Lab does not mean the user community disappears. A closure is a sensitive matter for everyone involved and should be approached with the utmost care. As people are the crucial factor in a Lab, their needs should be considered and their work and knowledge preserved. A plan as to how to ensure this preservation should be communicated openly and outputs from the Lab made available to the user community for as long as possible.
Funding and sustaining a GLAM Lab:
Involves making decisions about the trade-offs between short-term and long-term funding options.
Means distinguishing between continuity and sustainability, and allowing for evolution of the Lab and its goals.
Means considering budgeting questions such as staff, operational costs, hardware and software, fellows, events and the occasional coffee.
May lead to retiring individual activities or even decomissioning the whole Lab, which involves making decisions about preserving outputs and transferring services to other departments.
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