Teaching Note for

Dealing With Extension's Partners: What's Ethical?


Michael A. Schmitt

Professor of Soil Science

Senior Associate Dean for Programs and Research

University of Minnesota Extension

St. Paul , Minnesota



Stephen B. Castleberry

Professor of Marketing

Labovitz School of Business and Economics

University of Minnesota-Duluth Duluth , Minnesota scastleb@d.umn.edu  


How to Use the Cases

1. Split the group up into teams of 2-4 people to discuss Case Part A. It worked for us to let them self-select team members. We found that people tended to choose those who sat near them, which often resulted in people from similar job descriptions working together. However, there were teams consisting of a mix of Extension profesional types (professors, field workers, other staff). The composition of the group didn't seem to affect the effectiveness of the exercise.

2. Allow the teams to read the case and discuss it for 20 minutes. Some will finish early,but many teams were working right up to the last minute. As the moderator, I walked the floor, answering any questions the teams had. Also, when I saw that a team was finished, I would walk over and engage the team in a conversation about the nature of their discussion. In that way, I was able to expand their own discussion of the case. I played "devil's advocate" and would question their answers.

3.After the 20 minutes, I called for the team discussion to end and led the entire class in a discussion. See my notes below (in the case questions). This was about 15 minutes.

4. Part B of the case was then distributed and the participants again worked in their same groups to discuss the case.

5. The moderator then led the entire class in a discussion of Part B case questions.See my notes below (in the case questions). This was about 15 minutes.

6. The moderator then offered some overall comments based on what he heard in the discussions. It seemed, for this group, that there were definite psychological barriers that Extension faculty have toward seeking external funding and delivering fee-based programs that compete with for-profit programs. They saw themselves as professionals who simply wanted to do their jobs without seeking funding. I told them, "it is okay to seek funding...it is the new reality that Extension is going to have to get used to...you can still be professional and do your job with complete integrity even though you have obtained funding from firms and organizations for some of your research or you have required participants to pay for programs (and those programs compete with for-profit programs).

7. The entire group was allowed to make any final comments.

Case Part A (Background scenario and initial discussion questions)


“I just want to conduct sound, unbiased fertilizer research . . .” Richard

Richard has been an Extension faculty member for many years working in production agriculture--specifically corn and soybean management. Richard is rather distraught as Extension has whittled his programmatic funding allocation to essentially zero—Extension has justified this based on the reduction in state funding and the flat-funding of federal dollars. As a result, Richard indicated that he is being asked to generate “income” funds that will support his research efforts as well as the operating expenses of the educational products and events he produces. While charging for these products and events results in some income, Richard realizes that he can not fund his research efforts with this sales income, thus, he (and all other Extension personnel) has been encouraged by Extension administration to write (research and/or educational) grants to support his production agricultural program.  

Richard is struggling with writing grants to crop-input companies for funding because he believes his credibility is at risk by forming formal collaborations with individual companies. Richard has long-standing relationships with fertilizer companies such as Terra, CF Industries, PCS, Agrium and Mosiac. In Richard's many research and demonstration plots across Minnesota , Richard has included many, if not all, of their products in the plots.

  B ut, as Richard quickly points out, most individual companies have much different objectives than the University and establishing formal relationships with them that include funding seems to lower his professional credibility. These companies' goals are to sell more products as business success is clearly evident to Richard and fellow Extension personnel. Richard has been able to work with them as he maintains his credibility by being an unbiased third-party resource for the end-users (farmers). Accepting funds from one or more of these companies seems to imply to him that he is in “cahoots” with the company and this perception worries Richard. After all, the organization would certainly promote the fact that they are funding his research efforts because these companies value the tie to the University.

  Richard has worked with all of these companies over the years and has used their products (often at gratis) but he could always clearly state to his audience that he did not get funds from these companies! He worries about his credibility…but he needs the funding!

  Richard also is not thrilled about the time and effort any grant efforts may require of him. He is so busy already that all the forms and process required for grant submission are frustrating to him. He also does not believe that his individual dealings with the companies, and their personnel, are any of the University's business!



1. The mission of UM Extension is research-based education. UM Extension faculty have always prided themselves in being objective and unbiased. How can soliciting external grants from for-profit firms help Extension achieve that mission?

Funding for applied research can be a challenge. Funding from a company with an interest in production agriculture can ensure a continued Univ of MN focus on fertilizer research.

In this time of transition, it can also help develop a "support of the U's Extension mission" relationship, rather than a "gift with a goal in mind".

In essence, it allows Extension to continue to operate and grow.

How might soliciting such grants hinder that mission?

If there is not a clear understanding of the intended use of the funds between the U and private company. If all dealings are not transparent with written understanding of goals and objectives.

If it causes Extension to change it's mission and have it's mission driven by the for-profit firms. Also, if the funding is poorly set up and administered. Finally, if there are not clearly written goals and agreements between all parties, there can be serious problems. We discussed ways to work around these issues.

  2. For-profit businesses such as Terra are only in business to make a profit. Discuss fully.

Not true. Participants were encouraged to read the mission statement of for-profit firms. If they do so, they will learn that most firms are NOT only in business to make a profit. Most also wish to be responsible citizens, and treat their customers, the community, the environment, etc. with care and respect.

While Terra is a for profit company, they benefit from a robust agricultural sector. A better understanding of fertilizer use and its economic and environmental impacts is not only beneficial to agricultural in the short-run, it is critical to maintaining a viable and growing agricultural industry in Minnesota in the long-term. This is important for Terra's profit and their financial future.

3. Why would companies (such as fertilizer company Terra in the case) want to partner with UM Extension? What do they get out of it?

Terra gets access to those doing the research and programming at the U. They also get an opportunity to better understand how their products perform and interact with crops from an unbiased source. There is a lot of information available from a lot of sources; even a for-profit company gets value from an impartial look at its product. If it doesn't work the way they think, they won't be able to sell it in the long-run. If the funding is a charitable gift to support research, it can be tax deductable.

Also, Terra gets to exercise social responsibility (they help society by their funding). They also get PR benefits by partnering with a well-known and respected organization.


4. In the past, Richard has solicited and accepted free product from manufacturers (free fertilizer). How is asking for grant money different?

The reality is that in many ways, it is quite similar. This was one of the key points we were trying to get across in the session.

It does require a more formal relationship, one in which more items are written down, and not merely orally discussed. Goals and objectives must be dealt with in a very straight forward manner. A gift of 100 lbs of fertilizer helps to do a research project. Grants help to fund a research and education program. There are differences in expectations on both sides and it is important they are well understood.


Case Part B (Extended background scenario and follow-up discussion questions)


“I just want to conduct sound, unbiased fertilizer research . . .” Richard Part B


Richard really felt strongly about not asking private businesses for grants. So he spent his time and effort over the past several months trying to secure federal and international grants. For example, he considered writing a grant request to the National Research Institute (NRI), which receives its funding from the USDA. This has been unsuccessful, however. It seems most grant money from these sources are going to conduct laboratory and/or theoretical research that Richard values to a lesser degree. After all, Extension administration has always valued his efforts that impact farmers at the local level and he does not want to change that.

  Richard has also been reading more University-wide publications lately, and has come to the conclusion that it's not only Extension that is being asked to find non-state support for it's programs. It seems the state is unable or unwilling to fund the University's missions as it has in the past. As a result, more and more partnerships with foundations and for-profit organizations are occurring.

  And he was pleasantly surprised when he had a conversation with an Extension colleague recently who had developed a close partnership with a for-profit firm. The complete results of that partnership won't be known for years of course, but the initial results seemed positive.

  So, Richard is considering jumping in and taking a shot at making stronger ties with foundations and for-profit organizations. Still, he is concerned about how his customers (farmers) will react to this behavior. Will they still see Richard as unbiased and objective, or as someone who is "in bed" with big business?

  "Maybe I need to make some guidelines for myself," he thought, "as I talk to companies and foundations." He pulled out a pad of paper and began to think.



1. What are some guidelines that Extension faculty could adopt to help guide their efforts at establishing relationships and solicit grants from foundations and for-profit organizations?

We let the groups come up with these. We then reminded them of our project management system (Sponsored Project Administration) which helps guide and document the grant money. Here are some examples of guidelines:


2. How can Richard manage customer (i.e., the farmers he deals with) perceptions of his credibility if Richard accepts grant money from foundations and for-profit organizations?

There will be some that question Richard's motives and allegiances. Richard must always be forthright about funding and funding sources and be careful not to let personal relationships impact his professional approach under any circumstances. Over time, his credibility will be validated by the work he does and how he handles himself.

Richard needs to help customers realize that he does his science in the exact same way he has always done it. The only differnce is in the funding source.

We did note that Richard's customer's already goes to the for-profit firms for some of their information, and that his customers do not consider that information to be unuseful. 

3. Are there any other issues Richard needs to consider as he moves forward to seek funding from foundations and for-profit organizations?

Moving a long-term relationship from personal to a funded professional relationship is not easy. It is important that Richard set up a series of standards that he will abide by with these companies. It should include guidelines that range from what he will and will not accept funds to do, how he will design trials and collect data, what and how he will present and report information. This will help give him a barometer. It would also be good to share these guidelines with any that he looks to get funds from.