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Fundraising for Basic Scientific Research: In the Trenches with Development and Academic Leaders [Alliance Blog]

Sue Merrilees is an advisor at the Science Philanthropy Alliance

Raising money for basic science from private sources can sometimes feel like a long and hard-fought battle; the set of potential donors is limited, the engagement of potential donors with the institution takes time, and the fruits of basic scientific research are unpredictable. Yet basic science is an area of giving that many philanthropists are passionate about, and many research institutions have shown that if fundraising is done right, it can result in significant commitments to fundamental research.

At a recent Science Philanthropy Alliance event in Chicago, several science and development leaders from research institutions offered some lessons they have learned about fundraising for basic scientific research.

Develop a Shared Vision

Justine Levin-Allerhand, the Broad Institute

Justine Levin-Allerhand, chief development officer and chief external relations officer at the Broad Institute, noted that a partnership approach is critical to relationships with philanthropists.

The Broad Institute has successfully developed such partnerships. One example is the institute’s Schmidt Fellows program, the result of a shared vision between Eric and Wendy Schmidt and the Broad Institute, to bridge the gap between the mathematical and computational sciences and the biological sciences.

“An organization needs to know itself and its donors, identify the problem that is ripe for solving, and articulate why it’s important,” said Justine. “Additionally, we have to be highly accountable to our partnerships in coordination with the scientists.”

Be Credible

Mary Lidstrom, vice president for research at the University of Washington, said that academic leaders need to be a credible resource to philanthropists. Many philanthropists are interested in giving to basic science but need help in exploring the landscape for a particular area, or in understanding the science. “It is important to act as a trusted advisor,” suggested Mary. “Don’t oversell and do be extremely honest. Academic leaders cannot just sell their own projects; they need to help educate the philanthropist.”

Stu Feldman from Schmidt Futures agreed that academic leaders were extremely helpful during his due diligence consultations. “I have received honest appraisals, advice, and recommendations from vice presidents of research and deans I’ve contacted. I’m amazed at how well that part of the system functions.”

In addition to helping educate philanthropists, being accountable is an important component of building credibility. Douglas Stewart, who is chair of the board at Marts & Lundy and whose previous development experience includes leadership positions at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, said, “I have always worked hard to execute proposals and ensure that promises are fulfilled.”

Engage Donors’ Enthusiasm

Angela Olinto, newly-appointed dean of physical sciences at the University of Chicago, cited the Brinson Foundation’s funding of the university’s fellowships and a public lectures program for astronomy and astrophysics, the Sloan Foundation’s support for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and The Kavli Foundation’s support for the Dark Energy Survey as some of the philanthropic gifts she has had the pleasure to witness in her field. She agreed that relationship building is important, noting that it is important for scientists to engage the philanthropist directly. Many philanthropists are excited about science’s potential and enjoy relationships with scientists they admire.

“To engage donors, scientists and development staff should be able to express their enthusiasm for the science. Enthusiasm is contagious,” said Angela. “In addition, scientists should be able to communicate the importance of their research clearly and succinctly. They need to speak human to human.”

From left to right: Douglas Stewart, Marts & Lundy; Mary Lidstrom, University of Washington; Joaquin Ruiz, University of Arizona; and Angela Olinto, University of Chicago

Build Communications Skills

To convey the right messages to non-scientists requires strong communications skills, added Bob Conn, president of The Kavli Foundation and chair of the board of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Bob suggested that organizations like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science can help with communications training.

Justine Levin-Allerhand similarly believed in the importance of good communications. On her development team are three writers and three communications staff who help the institution communicate clearly to stakeholders.

To be able to articulate the case for basic science to donors, Mary Lidstrom noted that development staff and scientists should be knowledgeable enough to be able to draw the line between basic and applied science, and to have the breadth of knowledge to share examples that will resonate with the philanthropist. The development team can help prepare for meetings with potential donors.

Identify Science that is Potentially Transformative

Philanthropists are a unique group of people who are looking for extraordinary opportunities to make a difference, observed Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona. “These people have made their money in a transformative way, so they look for transformative science to support.” He gave the example of Ed Bass, who built a $300 million biosphere near Tucson, Arizona. Once Columbia University stepped back from the project after having run the first phase, Joaquin’s team at the University of Arizona persuaded Ed to give them the biosphere along with a $30 million endowment by proposing unique experiments that involved interdisciplinary teams of people who wouldn’t typically collaborate.

A Golden Opportunity

Marts & Lundy’s Doug Stewart summed up the opportunity to increase private funding for basic science. “We live in a golden age of philanthropy. We are now seeing more mega gifts of $25 million and up, and last year philanthropic giving in the U.S. reached an all-time high of $400 billion. Of this amount, about one percent is going to basic science today. If we could increase giving by even a half a percent, what a difference we would make.”

It is comforting to know we have such talented individuals and teams dedicated to raising funding for basic science.