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Calling All Donors: Will philanthropists see the value in supporting basic science?

April 2007--Recently, a group of philanthropists led by Sanford Weill announced a $400 million gift to build research centers and recruit senior scientists for Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Weill, a former CEO of Citigroup Inc, is also giving an additional $50 million to Cornell, his alma mater, to support research in genomics and other life sciences. So far, drop-dead windfalls have been slow to find their way to Johns Hopkins basic science departments. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen one day, says IBBS Director Steve Desiderio.

Desiderio has been working with the Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine to raise money for the institute’s research programs, endowment and student financial aid. Trustees, leadership and members of the institute’s own advisory council have been helping IBBS identify prospective donors with the potential to make a “transformational gift,” development parlance for the blockbuster, multimillion-dollar donations that seem almost commonplace in a time when the rich are indeed very, very rich.

It’s not likely to happen right away, nor is it likely to come easily. In the first place, basic science is coming late to the party. It’s long taken a back seat to Hopkins’ remarkably successful clinical fund raising, which is fueled by a robust grateful patient program, as well as its fund raising for the medical school, where alumni can be counted on to contribute sizeable amounts every year in the form of annual gifts and reunion gifts.

Second, when it comes to fundamental scientific research, it is comparatively difficult to identify potential donors. There are, after all, no grateful patients or the high esprit de corps that exists among med school alumni. “You just don’t bond with your molecular biologist,” says Elizabeth McMahon, a director of development at the Fund, “but people are deeply interested in the fundamental questions of disease and human development.”

And third, most of the private philanthropy directed at research has historically been tied to a specific disease instead of general basic science that will form foundations for future discovery.

Despite such obstacles, Desiderio remains decidedly optimistic. The lay public, he says, is so keenly interested in science that the absence of grateful patients hardly matters. Increasingly, as he gets out and meets potential donors, he finds that his presentations resonate with the audience. “I talk in nontechnical terms, sometimes using analogies. I find people understand and want to hear more. The lay public has an enormous thirst for the intelligent discussion of science.”

Furthermore, Desiderio says, research doesn’t always have to be related to disease to pique the interest of philanthropists. “You don’t want to make promises. Prospective donors don’t really want to give to a promise. They might think the work will not yield fruit until, say, 2027. We need to tell them we’re doing the work now, and without your help, we can’t kick it up to the next level.”

Several other IBBS scientists also have been out talking to potential donors. They’ve gone to the annual symposium in Palm Beach. They’ve attended small dinners hosted by trustees in places like New York, Chicago, and Naples, Fla.

“It was fun,” Cynthia Wolberger, a professor in the Department of Biophysics, says of her experience speaking to a Hopkins-affiliated group in Boston as part of the University’s Knowledge for the World campaign. “I’ve always considered what I do as fairly arcane. I don’t work on human health. But I found a sophisticated audience who asked a surprising number of good questions.”

Wolberger thinks Hopkins’ scientists should play a far greater role in fund raising. “We do very little compared to my colleagues at other institutions. We have an enormous amount of catch-up to do. We do not have enough money from grants to support students, and we’re woefully under-endowed.”

IBBS has indeed received several substantial gifts in the past. It was formed, in fact, with a gift valued at $30 million from an anonymous donor. And in the spring of 2006, the institute, along with the Department of Medicine, received a $10 million gift from philanthropist John Rangos to support research in the new life sciences building in the biotechnology park now under development just north of the East Baltimore campus.

The institute’s current strategy calls for identifying high-level donors, collaborating with clinical faculty to tap grateful patients interested in fundamental research, and reaching out to basic science alums now working in industry or in university labs around the country.

“In the face of diminishing NIH funding, it’s become increasingly clear that for Johns Hopkins to maintain its scientific excellence, philanthropy will be essential to survive this period,” he says. “So we’re thinking big. We’re looking for the big, sexy things. We’re looking for the gifts that are truly transformational.”

--Anne Bennett Swingle

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Lead Advisor: Alice Huang, chair of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Science's Advisory Council