“Fun” is certainly not a word most people would associate with research into a disease that will claim the lives of an estimated 40,450 mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters this year. But when we interviewed one donor about her involvement in breast cancer research, that word came up again and again.

Understanding what the donor means by “fun” provides great insight into the mind of donors who are passionate about medical science research. Even in situations where the problem is very dire, donors gravitate toward solutions that are enthusiastic, hopeful, and focused on action. Let’s parse out portions of her interview.

Factor #1: Infectious Passion

Breast cancer is very serious. But when you talk to Lily about the way she goes about her research, she gets so animated! She loves what she does! She makes it fun! And you need to do that when you’re talking to people.

Lily, a cancer researcher at an academic medical institution, is highly passionate about her work. And when Lily communicates with the donor, she conveys her enthusiasm. As this donor says, “You can just feel it!” And that passion is infectious.

Factor #2: Creative Engagement

Lily is real good at drawing me pictures. And I’ve got one she sent me—a colored photograph, blown up many, many, many times, of some of the tagged particles reaching out to the cancer cells. It’s on my kitchen wall. And it’s like a big piece of art. That makes it fun. And people come into my kitchen and they say, ‘What’s that?’ So I get a chance to explain. I say, “That’s my breast cancer research project.

There are several takeaways here. First, the photograph not only engaged the donor as a part of the research, but it remains on her wall as a reminder. Second, did you notice whose breast cancer research project it is? It’s hers; she shares ownership. Third, the donor uses the photograph to engage others in the important work of the institution.

Factor #3: Resonating Science

I’ll give you another example of Lily. She’ll say (about the tagged particles), ‘And those little suckers are just reaching out, you know?’ So she’s not using big high fallutin’ terms. She’s getting down to the nitty gritty and explaining it and making jokes and making fun: ‘Now if I can just get those little suckers to go here, you know?’ She makes it interesting for somebody to participate.

Although the science is tremendously complicated, the researcher is able to explain it in such a way that this particular donor understands. Moreover, the researcher makes it so interesting that the donor wants to participate.

Factor #4: Meaningful Involvement

I can work one-on-one with Lily and say, ‘How are things going? What’s the progress?’ Things of that kind. So it’s not just drop the money and go. I want to be involved. I want to know how it’s working, and if it’s working, and how pleased they are with the project. That’s the satisfaction part.

The donor feels like she is a part of the research. She says, ‘I can work one-on-one with Lily…’ The donor may not be doing the actual research, but she is completely invested in the work. She wants to know the impact of the research she is helping fund. She wants to be informed.


As you work with researchers to engage donors and potential donors in your institution’s important work, consider:

  • How can you help your researchers convey a genuine sense of passion?
  • What creative engagement opportunities can you offer?
  • How can you help your researchers articulate the science in a way that resonates with donors?
  • How can you involve donors in the work and create a feeling of ownership?

The opportunity is tremendous. In the words of this donor, “I’m looking for somebody that wants to do something good. And have fun doing it.” There are many more donors like her. How will you inspire them?


Click here to learn more about development skills for medical science researchers