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The Alliance was pleased to lead a workshop at the 2024 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, where they aimed to enhance understanding of science philanthropy and its significant role in funding scientific endeavors. 

Alliance President France Córdova hosted the session, with Alliance External Science Advisor and Nobel Laureate Tom Cech sharing comments and Strategic Initiative Manager Elyse Hope serving as moderator. Three faculty panelists, Edward Chuong (Assistant Professor, University of Colorado Boulder), Gordana Dukovic (Assistant Professor, University of Colorado Boulder), and Adrienne Marshall (Assistant Professor, Colorado School of Mines), shared their experience with philanthropy covering topics ranging from the interplay between philanthropy and other funding sources to best practices for foundation applications and the value of tenacity.

Interplay with other funding sources

Panelists viewed philanthropic funds as a complement to and precursor for other types of funds, particularly from government grants. 

  • Government funding can be more conservative, with reviewers seeking to be reassured that an idea is likely to work.
  • Some labs split their philanthropic and government support across different projects that don’t significantly intersect.
  • Philanthropy can help build an expert track record in an area of work that can lead to federal funding for later stages.

There can be a difference in framing work for applications to philanthropic foundations. Panelists spoke about how the same qualities that may appeal to philanthropists, such as high-risk projects that explore a novel direction, might need risk mitigation for government programs. 

Philanthropy is ideal for funding novel and interdisciplinary work

Philanthropy has given the panelists room to explore ideas they think are exciting and have fun in their research programs, but they were also realistic in that sometimes it is one of many funding sources that help keep the lights in the lab on.

  • Philanthropy can catalyze new directions and allow you to take risks and explore new research areas.
  • Work that sits at the nexus of two disciplines or is heavily interdisciplinary isn’t always a precise fit for discipline-specific funding calls. Philanthropy often operates at those intersections and can also support collaboration with researchers in other areas.

Relationships with foundations can run deep

Some panelists had experiences with foundation funding that they described as “investing in their future as a scientist.”

  • Some foundations may offer detailed feedback on proposals, with an opportunity to revise and resubmit. This iterative process can lead to closer relationships with the funder.
  • Other foundations see grant recipients almost as family members, with career-long relationships and initial funding leading to later funding for foundation alums. Foundation grants may add value beyond the funds, with opportunities like retreats to build cohorts and networks.

The nuts and bolts of philanthropy funding applications 

The foundation funding landscape is very heterogeneous. Some foundations ask for long proposals similar to government grants; others are more casual and focus on ideas and broad vision, potentially relying on letters of recommendation to speak to your expertise. Regardless, our panelists agreed that applying for foundation funding takes planning and provided some key advice to the participants.

  • Every foundation has its own goals, deadlines, timelines, and requirements. For some, you must be in a particular year of your PhD or faculty career; for others, you may need to be nominated by your institution.
  • Finding that support, for most, involved a lot of Googling, perusing department newsletters that share funding opportunities, and looking to colleagues in similar fields to see what awards they had received.
  • Develop a strategy, timeline, and long-term vision of what you will apply for and when. Use a spreadsheet to plan out the grant applications for at least the next year (but ideally two years). Grant applications do make up a large part of a faculty position’s early years.
  • Get examples of successful applications from friends and colleagues to read how they pitch their science.
  • Have discussions with senior colleagues who have served on review boards. 
  • Review by your university Office of Research or Office of Development can be valuable. Sometimes, university resources understand what different philanthropic funders are looking for.
  • Ask for review and advice from people who aren’t directly in your field to ensure you can articulate the importance of your work; foundation grant review panels may have a broader spectrum of people on the advisory committee than federal grants.
  • Your proposal is likely to be reviewed by both generalists and experts. The generalists should understand the work, and the experts should know you have the depth of technical knowledge to execute the proposed work. Write 25% of the proposal for the experts. 

The value of persistence

Both panelists and workshop host France Córdova spoke about the importance of tenacity and self-belief. Panelists shared that there have been awards they wouldn’t have applied for if it hadn’t been for a push from their Department chair or a senior colleague and that there is a misconception that these awards are always highly competitive when, in reality, they might vary from year to year. It might also require sharing a project idea with many possible funders, “throwing your hat in the ring,” and trying (and trying again) for funds that could be transformative to your career. Redo and resubmit; persistence can pay off.

For more information, please get in touch with The Alliance has begun curating a page of aggregate calls to make finding opportunities easier.

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