<< Return to News Archive
10 Tips for Research Institutions Working to Raise Funds for Basic Science [Alliance commentary]

By Valerie Conn, Vice President, Science Philanthropy Alliance

On July 8, nearly 100 representatives from our research partner institutions gathered at UC Berkeley to discuss how to effectively engage philanthropists. Many attendees were concerned about the decline of federal funding of basic science, and welcomed the growing interest from private foundations and philanthropists in funding basic science.


Having advised a few dozen philanthropists and foundations in the last year on behalf of the Alliance, I shared ten tips that universities and research institutes can use to more effectively fundraise for basic science research:

10. Focus on basic science. It’s important to train fundraisers and scientists to be able to talk effectively about basic science—articulate why basic science matters to you and your institution, so that basic science is part of every science funding conversation!

9. Develop three basic science stories. Come up with your institution’s best stories about how research led to discoveries and improvements to health, technology, and society in general. Teach these stories to new development officers and science leaders at your institution, so that they can tell them in a succinct, compelling way.

8. Lead with the science. In every meeting, every presentation, and every event with potential donors, share the most exciting science that’s happening at your university. Engage your donors and enthrall them with the wonder of discovery about our natural world!

7. Communicate priorities. Communicate your basic science priorities to your prospective donors and your community at large. Understand your unique areas of expertise that, with additional financial support, have the potential for game-changing research breakthroughs.

6. Get the first gift. We are repeatedly told by new and established philanthropists that they are being asked to give big gifts too soon. Start off with five- or six-figure gifts that are well stewarded over time. These will lead to much larger gifts in the future.

5. Work together. Since many established and emerging foundations have founders who are active in decision-making, universities need to integrate the work of individual giving and principal gifts fundraisers with the work of corporate and foundation relations fundraisers. Everyone needs to be on the same page, creating strategies together to help maximize the effectiveness of the institution’s strategy with the prospective donor.

4. Show progress. You want the donor to join the journey of discovery. Create a stewardship plan where you can consistently show progress in the research. The donor will feel more engaged if s/he has more information, even if that progress report is simply that “the lab renovation was completed” or “we purchased this instrument and have begun the initial experiments.” Keep them in the loop!

3. Encourage a portfolio approach. Jim Simons (Simons Foundation) encourages philanthropists to allocate at least 10% of their philanthropic portfolio to higher-risk, high-return, long-term investment—basic science research fits this description. Encourage this portfolio approach.

2. Consistent contact. Create a plan for how frequently to contact your prospective donors and current donors to basic science, and stick to it! Be sure to communicate with them in a way that they like to communicate, whether via texts, emails from the scientist, or Facebook. Strive to be a consistent and welcome source of communication to join the journey of discovery.

1. Listen, steward, listen, steward. At the Alliance, we have been told repeatedly by philanthropists that they don’t think that they are being listened to enough. This fundamental component of relationship management is so important, benefiting both the donor and the research. Listen, steward, and follow through!

Despite the complexity and challenge of fundraising for basic science, it is important to tell exciting stories and effectively manage relationships to increase your chances of success in basic science fundraising.

For more information, contact Valerie at vconn@sciphil.org.