As you read this, complex scientific research is being conducted that addresses some of our world’s most persistent and painful problems. The success of the work, however, is often impeded by a lack of financial resources. Philanthropy can help accelerate and improve research efforts, which is why it is critical that researchers learn their important roles in fundraising.

In addition to providing meaningful return on investment, showing their own enthusiasm, and making philanthropic referrals when appropriate, researchers should also be prepared to articulate their work in a manner compelling to donors. When the right elements are shared as part of a compelling Opportunity Story, researchers can ignite interest, generate enthusiasm, and foster greater understanding. This is true of any area of non-profit fundraising, but scientific researchers face an additional challenge that their counterparts in academia or the public sphere may not: Their work often features significant elements that are simply unfamiliar to a layperson.

For example, consider the medical researcher who is working in reproductive tract development, diseases, and disorders. From the perspective of his laboratory, the day-to-day goal is to “delete specific tumor-suppressive genes in specific cells” in mice, observe the results, and translate findings “to human diseases and find markers that [they] can detect in the serum.” To a person whose area of expertise lies elsewhere, that description—if it makes sense at all—is incredibly abstract and unclear, not to mention uninspiring.

Wanting to do justice to the truly exciting nature of his work, this researcher developed a metaphor to bring the true impact of his research to life:

It’s like a time machine. If you find a building that’s collapsed, there is nothing you can do at that point. But if you have a time machine, and you can go back and find the flaws in this building before it collapses, you may even be able to find a fix for it—and certainly, you could prevent other buildings from collapsing, as well.

Imagine we can go back in time and observe the early stages of ovarian cancer, when it’s limited to the ovaries and it’s highly curable…and develop a system of detecting the early stages of the disease. With our mouse model, we are essentially building this time machine.

It isn’t difficult to imagine which of these descriptions is most enticing to potential donors. A simple, familiar image can bring the research to life in a way that encourages follow-up questions and paves the way for active involvement and support.

Metaphors are powerful for many reasons, but here are three of the most potent:

1. The right words can create a level playing field

Donors want to be engaged meaningfully in the causes they support—but it’s tough to engage when the subject matter is unfamiliar. Metaphors are designed to level the playing field and provide a basis for conversation and understanding. They also hook a donor’s interests so that eventually, through continued education and engagement, the donor may become more comfortable with the scientific jargon researchers typically use.

2. Metaphors can evoke exciting images

In diseases in which the prognosis is significantly affected by early detection, understanding the beginning stages is paramount—but this phase of research is not the stage that will ultimately produce cures and, as such, can strike a donor as uninspiring. The time machine metaphor is one way to create excitement around a very important and necessary phase in this potentially life-saving research.

3. Language can leverage the power of stories

There are many peaks and valleys during the lengthy processes of scientific research. When we utilize metaphors, we can transform these nuanced phases into a story that is memorable, interesting, and engaging. Imagine the metaphor of the time machine being extended: After the faults in the building are discovered, the researchers have to find a way to reverse their time travel and bring their knowledge to the present day. How exciting, and how natural for a donor to ask, “How can I be a part of that?”

Do the researchers you work with recognize the power of language and metaphors to make their work compelling to potential philanthropic investors? Learn more about a process for engaging researchers in philanthropy by clicking the button below to download Development Skills for Medical Science Researchers brochure.


Development Skills for Medical Researchers