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Working with Science Foundations [Alliance blog post]

Valerie Conn is executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

When I talk to scientists, university leaders, and development officers, I’m frequently asked questions such as: How do I get foundations to notice our scientists and our research? How do we penetrate the “black box” of the newest foundations, those that may not even have names or websites yet? How do foundations want research institutions to contact them?

Since our members are private funders who support basic science research, I went directly to them for answers. I heard from ten private funders—a diverse group including new and established foundations, those whose founders are living and actively engaged in their philanthropy, and those whose founders are no longer involved. They also had a variety of structures, from foundations to LLCs (for convenience, below I refer to all the funders as “foundations”).

Here is what I learned.

  1. Lead with the Science!

Foundation program officers consistently expressed that they want to initially hear from the scientists because they are best at describing their research. If the foundation ends up making the grant, the program officer will already have a good working knowledge of the science and the situation. According to one program officer, “It is best for the principal investigator—not the development person—to reach out, as I take inquiries from PIs more seriously.”

Since most development officers don’t have a degree in science, their lack of expertise is quite apparent and frustrating to the program officer when the development officer pitches the research. Similarly, foundations don’t appreciate having administrators, whether the president, dean, or a development officer, cold call them to pitch a “university priority.” One program officer told me, “Universities often approach us when the dean of some school is in town to talk with us about all of the different areas of research they have underway, and those meetings are invariably not a good use of their time . . . or of ours.”

The foundation wants to learn what problems that investigator is interested in, about that investigator’s lab, and about other collaborations he or she has. In an introductory email, it is appropriate for the investigator to talk about a specific need for research. In all cases, it’s critical to do research on the particular areas of interest to a foundation before interacting with them.

  1. Rely on Your Development Staff

So, if foundations don’t want to hear directly from development staff about science, what is their role?

One important role for development staff is to conduct and provide research. I was dismayed to hear stories about development officers who did not follow basic Development 101 processes. One program officer told me, “I am often surprised that university development folks don’t know what grants we have given to different parts of the university from my program.” Development staff should know to whom they are presenting, and prepare their scientists and university representatives accordingly.

Development staff also play a critical role in identifying, managing, and tracking the interactions with funders and potential funders. And they support scientists by accompanying them to one-on-one meetings and events that foundation staff is attending. In the words of a program officer, “The most effective foundation relations officers let the researcher be the ‘face’ of the inquiry externally. The development officer listens well and keys in on important points on our discussion. The best are guides to the researchers on how to do proposal preparation well.”

Finally, development staff play an important role in stewardship, keeping the funder/foundation staff apprised of milestones and progress, and ensuring that there is regular contact between the scientist and the program officer. But don’t do what one institution did:  during a stewardship meeting on campus, the funder was solicited for a $20 million gift unrelated to the research being conducted with the first gift.  The funder was not happy with the institution!

  1. Explore Different Paths to Program Officers’ Radar

Program officers often don’t go directly to scientists when they are initially exploring a field. “We find that if we reach out directly, we raise expectations, and thus we only reach out to learn more if there is a strong probability that we are interested.”

Instead, they spend a lot of time doing their own research to learn about a field, through personal contacts or online resources. They may call a trusted advisor, a grantee, or a scientist contact and ask who is doing interesting work in a particular field or on a particular problem. So, scientists who are visible in their field have an advantage.

Science program officers may read publications and postings on the scientists’ homepages. That said, I also learned that program officers aren’t impressed with flashy websites, but instead want ease of navigation to find content about the scientific research and successes. Other online resources they explore include journals, news stories, citation database servers, and webinars or recorded talks.

An important insight that surfaced is that program officers rarely get invited to workshops that research institutions are holding, yet they are interested in attending such events. If your astronomy center or institute is convening a group of world experts to discuss recent breakthroughs in the field of dark energy, invite science program officers to attend. Let it be an opportunity to cultivate the program officer’s knowledge of this topic and show your institution’s role as a leader in this field. “We are always happy to hear about events (e.g., conferences, workshops, meetings, etc.) related to areas of interest to us or other potentially transformative efforts,” said one program officer.

But don’t present a proposal to the foundation person just because they showed up at your institution. Position yourself as a scientific thought leader with whom the foundation will want to further engage.

Again, researching what the foundation is interested in is key. One program officer told me, “Development offices often have what I would consider to be outdated modes of interaction; they rely on alumni ties or glitzy events rather than doing the legwork of really finding out what the donor wants to accomplish with their giving.”

  1. Build Lasting Relationships

An interesting approach from one foundation is to ask the grantees or scientists they know about another investigator or institution the foundation is considering funding. If the advising scientist is prompt, forthcoming, and the information is helpful, this not only helps the foundation get the information they need, but also serves as an informal way to “try out” the scientist. One officer said, “I often will ask a researcher to review a proposal for me so I can see how they think, how responsive they are, if they can hit a deadline, if they are constructive, and so on. If a researcher writes a review on time and in scope, I am happy to talk with them about their own research.”

The importance of building a relationship with a foundation cannot be overstated. It is rare for a philanthropist to make a large gift based on what they read or viewed on a website. But I have heard many stories about how, through iterative conversations, philanthropists end up funding a principal investigator or a research project. 

The Science Philanthropy Alliance provides advice and resources to philanthropists who are interested in supporting basic scientific research.

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