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What Science Philanthropists Want: 10 Observations [Valerie Conn blog]

Valerie Conn is executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

A question I often get from research institutions seeking funding for scientific research is “what do philanthropists want?”. In my role as advisor to philanthropists who are interested in supporting science, I have a front row view to this question. Philanthropists are as diverse as people can be, so these points don’t apply to all philanthropists.

#10. Philanthropists want to integrate or create new technologies for science research.

Philanthropists understand the importance of tools and technologies in accelerating science research, from instrumentation to data sharing platforms. One of our members, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, supports collaborations between scientists and engineers and creates computational and experimental tools to empower the scientific community. Other members, like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, develop or fund high end microscopy for scientific research.

#9. Philanthropists want to support research that fills a knowledge gap.

Many of the philanthropists we talk to ask, “What still needs to be known in order to make a leap forward in this field of science?” Scientists should clearly articulate where the gaps in knowledge in their field are, and how they are exploring those gaps.

#8. Philanthropists want to fund what the government won’t.

Federal funding tends to be conservative. Novel and ambitious projects perceived to be high risk are unlikely to get through the screening process. Philanthropists, on the other hand, are comfortable with longer term investments and investments without a specific application in mind, for higher potential return. Scientists should present to philanthropists ideas that are too risky or too novel for federal support.

#7. Philanthropists want to create new and more effective models.

Some philanthropists are looking for ways to accelerate scientific research through new models. The Simons Foundation, for example, recently established the Flatiron Institute which leverages the power of computational methods, including data analysis, modeling and simulation for biology, astrophysics, and quantum physics. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative created its Biohub to combine talent from three research powerhouses in the Bay Area. What new models can lead to more rapid scientific discovery?

#6. Philanthropists want to learn from their peers.

We at the Science Philanthropy Alliance have found that philanthropists are eager to talk to their peers about their experiences and practices. Research institutions could pair experienced science donors with newer donors to help inform and engage these new donors and encourage their giving to basic science.

#5. Philanthropists want to emulate best practices.

Peer-to-peer learning among philanthropists includes sharing best practices in science philanthropy. Whether it’s learning about how to establish a fellowship or learning about how to select science advisors, philanthropists want to learn tried and true methods as well as what is innovative.

#4. Philanthropists want to partner with other philanthropists.

In a capital campaign, trustees often join together to make seed gifts in the initial stages of the campaign. But we see it on a grander scale too, from Wellcome and the Gates Foundation’s partnership on the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to The Kavli Foundation and the Allen Institute working together to create the Brain Initiative.

#3. Philanthropists want to talk to scientists.

Lead with the science! It is important to remember that, ultimately, people give to people. Philanthropists want to know who they are investing in, so don’t be afraid to put scientists in front of prospective donors. Of course, it is also important that scientists are trained so that they have strong communications skills, in order to clearly articulate their research and why it is exciting and important.

#2. Philanthropists want to dive deeply into the science.

Our experience is that many philanthropists are deeply curious about, and really want to learn about the science. Communicating the science to philanthropists clearly and articulately (without dumbing it down) can help them feel like they are joining the journey of science discovery which can include sharing articles, books, and websites with philanthropists.

#1. Last but not least, philanthropists want to be inspired.

Philanthropists want to feel like they are making a difference. They want to believe they are influencing the future of science, of health, of technology, of our world. Communications to philanthropists should touch, not only the head, but the heart.


Ultimately, philanthropists want to support science in a way that reflects their interests and passions, and to invest their money wisely. Supporting them in their efforts takes careful listening, thinking through how your institution can meet their needs, and patience.