Those donors who make major contributions to research usually have significant personal reasons for doing so. As we work to provide meaningful stewardship to those who support our work in research, it is important to ensure the donor feels respected, sees the impact, and has expectations met.

Here are three ways to ensure research donors receive a meaningful return on their philanthropic investments:

1. Respect the Donor’s Desire to be Part of the Team

Often, clinicians are reluctant to refer patients and family members to philanthropy because they worry they are taking advantage of them during a vulnerable time. However, this clinician-researcher has a different perspective:

I think patients are very savvy and strong and not as likely to be vulnerable, in fact. Most of them know exactly what they want and how to stand up for themselves and not be taken advantage of. I view them as empowered, especially with the Internet and social media; they are very well educated about their condition and their rights as patients. And so, I think in fact they want to be part of something bigger. They want to be involved with change.

With this perspective, we can recognize that gifts are not coerced. In fact, donors are pleased to be a part of the work that is taking place. When we consider donors as partners in the work, we begin to treat them as equal members of the research team: I try to let them know when we make new discoveries, when we have major publications, when anything exciting is happening that I want to share with my colleagues or partners—because she really is part of the team.

2. Share Impact in a Way that Resonates

Meaningful philanthropy is often driven by life experiences. When we remember the life experiences that drive the desire to get involved, we can be intentional about how we share the impact of contributions. In the case of this development professional, he ensures that truthful, up-to-date information is always provided—even when it isn’t good news:

Sometimes people forget to report, or they don’t want to report failure. But if [donors] trust that the [researchers are] smart and collaborative and trying to stay on the cutting edge, it is okay to report failure. That means you’re trying. The discouraging part for [this donor] is that world-class experts…are saying this is a tough disease to cure. It’s discouraging to her—but it’s not like we’re not trying. I keep trying to bring her the good news, which is that we might be able to cure this disease. It might actually happen. And if I can do that and show that [our organization] is really trying, then she knows that I haven’t forgotten that her husband died of this disease, and she wants to cure it.

3. Acknowledge a Complex Process

When we share the vision for the future with donors, we like to dream as big as possible—but when we sit down to have a conversation about a contribution, we should remember to emphasize that research can be unpredictable. While we would like to know exactly what will happen and when it will take place, research by nature delves into the unknown and sometimes takes a lifetime or more to be fully understood. Consider how this researcher describes the immeasurable impact of new discoveries:

Take Heinrich Hertz for example. It was the late 19th Century, and he went into a laboratory and started working with radio waves. When asked about the radio waves, he said, “They will have no important application or be of any interest whatsoever.” We certainly know different today. My point is, you know, you cannot anticipate what you can do with deep knowledge, and our technology today, every aspect of it, everything we have is floating on the kind of inquisitive science that I’m talking about.

Research scientists and those who support them are in a unique position of striving for something that may or may not come to fruition in the way originally imagined—making accurate, realistic, respectful stewardship even more critical. When we keep donors informed, we prove that we consider them a part of the team, we respect them, and we are honest about what we are trying to accomplish together.

What do you do to keep donors who have contributed to research informed about what’s happening at your institution? Share your experiences on social media.


Contact us to learn more about how researchers and their development colleagues can effectively partner.