Medical science research is transcending the boundaries of what is possible for human health, lengthening our lives, and pioneering the road to cures for diseases that were once thought to be unbeatable. Universally relatable human experience makes medical science research easy to raise philanthropic dollars for—or does it?

While philanthropy is currently redefining the landscape of American science, there still remains a considerable communication barrier in development work for many medical science researchers. Innovative work is being done, but if that work can’t be translated to the language of donors and potential donors, then its philanthropic potential significantly diminishes. Moreover, development professionals who work with medical science researchers face unique challenges that require a nuanced, strategic approach. These professionals must balance fundraising skills with a combination of scientific knowledge, rapport with researchers, and insight into the mindset of donors best suited for funding medical science research.

Maureen McNulty, Executive Donor Advisor at the Alzheimer’s Association in Los Angeles, has worked extensively with medical science researchers at such institutions as Harvard Medical School and the University of Southern California. Our team had the opportunity to interview McNulty about her experiences working with medical science researchers and learn her advice for those new to the profession. Here are her five keys to success in development for medical science research:

1. Recognize a difference in perspectives

The first important aspect about working with medical science researchers, McNulty says, is to recognize that they are not necessarily loyal to the institution or even their area of the institution. They are single-minded and passionate in their pursuit of their own research questions. To a medical science researcher, McNulty would never say, “It’s not about you,” because, in a sense, it actually is.

Science faculty, more than most folks, are corporations of one. Their loyalty is to their lab, to their work. Often times we’re fundraising for universities or health centers or institutes, but their loyalty is to solving a problem. Expect them to come at fundraising for different reasons.

2. Watch your word choices

A difference in perspective necessitates special attention to nuances of language and meaning. For instance, we use the word “development” to talk about fundraising. Medical science researchers are likely to think of drug development when they hear that term. Similarly, development professionals like to talk about “results” in terms of dollars raised, but the results that a medical science researcher wants are related to research.

Many of my colleagues are successful because they are always asking questions to avoid coming away with assumptions. Even when we hear a word, thinking of a word in a certain way, we check to see if it has a different meaning for that faculty member. Because it very well might.

3. Be a sponge

An equally important facet of medical science development work is extensive knowledge of the subject matter. Working with researchers means becoming an expert in talking about the work of some of the world’s most scientifically brilliant minds. A PhD in biophysics won’t be necessary, but conscientious attention to the scientific factors at play in the researchers’ work certainly will be. With this in mind, it is important to ask as many questions as possible, read everything you can, and be a sponge for knowledge.

Never be afraid to say to the fellow who mapped the human genome, ‘I think this is what you just told me. Am I even close?’ I had a colleague who was representing immunology and he actually bought some textbooks in immunology and started reading them and talking to faculty about how to understand the concept.

4. Know your competitors’ products

Throughout your region, the country, and the world, many like-minded researchers are striving to solve the same important problems as the researchers you work with. As you interact with donors and researchers to make connections and facilitate meaningful contributions, it is essential to know what sets your organization’s research apart.

There are many other good places doing exactly what we’re doing. I not only get to know my product, but I know all of the colleagues and competitors, and I can speak with some authority. One thing I say is, ‘If you’re trying to fund the top five places in the world working on solving this problem, my institution needs to be in that five.’ You need to dig deeper and find out, compared to the other people, what’s your particular angle that a donor should be interested in. That takes some discernment, homework, and engagement with your scientists.

5. Bridge the gap yourself

Coming from vastly different educational and training backgrounds, it can seem unnatural at first for development professionals and researchers to work together. However, consistent professionalism and expertise will produce good results. McNulty explains that when she goes on visits, there are two experts in the room. The development professional must be as good at their job as the researcher is at theirs. Working together, the researcher will observe that the development professional is a partner worthy of trust.

At first, we look odd to them. We have to dress a certain way to go out and see clients, and they’re happy to wear pajamas to the lab. They are quite quizzical about why we insist that certain things happen before we go out on visits or bring somebody into the lab. And in most cases, they aren’t going to come to us. They’ve done very well living the way they’ve lived, studying the way they’ve studied. If we’re going to bridge that gap, we’re going to have to be the ones who bridge it.

Effective working relationships between development and research scientists share these five elements, as well as many others. Advancement Resources, in partnership with McNulty and Harvard School of Medicine, developed the groundbreaking workshop Philanthropy for Medical Science Research to help train researchers to share their work in a way compelling to donors.


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