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Science Research Centers and Institutes – How Do They Get Funded? [Valerie Conn blog]

Valerie Conn is the executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

A particular challenge that research institutions face is that of fundraising for mega projects such as centers and institutes. Unlike fundraising for specific scientists or labs, these capital-intensive projects have longer timelines and require careful strategy and inter-departmental teamwork to pull off.

At a recent conference, the Science Philanthropy Alliance heard from Patty Pedersen, associate vice president and director of corporate and foundation relations at Yale University, and Katherine Cardinal, senior director for philanthropy at the University of Washington, about some best practices for fundraising for science research centers and institutes.

Institutional readiness

Both Patty and Katherine stressed that fundraising for a center or institute is not an individual activity—it requires that individual giving development staff collaborate with corporate and foundation relationship staff, and that the development team work together with scientists and administrators. Traditional barriers between units and departments must be overcome to pull together resources and expertise in disparate areas such as finance, compliance, and fundraising. Patty noted that financial support for centers and institutes, while usually more substantial in scale, scope, and impact than support for research projects, builds on the successes of and the relationships built around those research projects.

Communications is key

Katherine underlined the importance of communications in engaging philanthropists. According to her, the four key questions that a research institution must consider when communicating to prospective funders are: Why does the research matter? What is the value of the center? Why is the research urgent? What can be the impact of the research center or institute?

In addition, Katherine uses analogies, comparing her institution’s protein design research to Legos, noting proteins are the building blocks of the human body. Katherine also spends time describing the value of basic science research investments and how these can lead to future applications for protein design.

Patty agreed that communications is critical, adding that research institutions should not dumb down science information when communicating to potential donors. They should understand and communicate what the scientific questions are, and why they are important, at the level that the science itself is created. To facilitate this process, Patty’s development team includes writers with Ph.Ds. in science who write proposals and other content to support the development effort.

Patty added that it is important to articulate why your research institution is the best place to do the research. She recommends that the scientist, administrators, and fundraisers know their own institution’s science strengths and relevant history, as well as where the competition is.

Engaging funders through their hearts and minds

Patty believes that there is no lack of potential funders. The challenge is how to engage them and inspire them to consider giving to your particular center or institute. There’s both a rational and an emotional side to every funder’s decision. It is important to talk about the science, but equally important to think through the emotional appeal of the science research investment to the donor. What motivates the potential funder? Supporting work that is the first in its field? Making a difference? Is the potential funder curious or passionate about the science itself?

“Big idea fundraising,” as Patty called it, is exciting and important, but it requires patience and persistence. Patty’s experience is that fundraising for complex, big-ticket centers and institutes takes a minimum of 18 months for the big gifts to begin to roll in, using the first year or more to create a compelling case for support. It also takes collaboration and team alignment, and effective communication about science and the institution’s particular strengths and role in advancing that science.