Professionals who raise money for cancer research are cautiously optimistic that philanthropic giving is on the upswing, but they mention 5 overlapping trends that researchers should keep in mind when applying for private funding.

As philanthropy edges up, donors seek more impact—and more access.

Executives at cancer research institutes and nonprofit organizations are cautiously optimistic that philanthropic giving is on a post-recession upswing.

“If a researcher can work hard with us, be somewhat flexible, and be strategic and focused, the money is out there,” says Susan Paresky, MBA, senior vice president for development at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which raised $168 million in private support in the year ending September 30, 2011.

However, just as with federal funding, the rules of the game are changing for philanthropy. Fundraisers mention 5 overlapping trends that researchers should keep in mind when applying for private grants.

“Everyone wants results that are tangible; they want to see the impact of their donation,” says Antonia Malagnini, head of the Create the Change Campaign, which raises money for Cancer Research UK's contribution to the new Francis Crick Institute in London. “People always want to know how it will improve the prospects of patients.”

“The donor wants to know the bigger picture,” she adds. “When you present research, you need to make clear how it fits in the grand scheme of research progress.”

“Trusts and foundations now are directing their funds where they will have the greatest impact,” says Douglas Hilton, PhD, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. “The big disease-specific foundations are providing larger, more targeted funding. They want to see a lot of brains coming together to come up with a solution to a particular problem.”

“Donors are much more focused on what they want, and as they learn more about what they're funding, they want more accountability from us,” says Paresky. “They are more likely to ask where the money is going, so it's fortunate that academic researchers are very clear on what it actually costs to do their research. They also want to know that the institution is behind the research; that everyone is on the team.”

“Donors want to actually kick the tires and to get to know the researchers, and researchers who are receiving philanthropic dollars owe it to the donors to be responsive,” says Paresky.

This responsiveness can include various flavors of interactions. “We took 3 of our grantees to one of our volunteer leadership meetings, and they were treated like rock stars,” says Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) in Manhattan Beach, CA, which funds about $4 million in research yearly. “The room went up in applause when they spoke. That helps to keep the researchers engaged, to put a face to the disease, and to make them feel that they've got to get back to the lab to work on this challenge.”

Such interactions can't be one-time events. “If you're doing exciting research, you want the trust, foundation, or philanthropist to feel that sense of excitement and share it with you,” says Hilton. It's important to understand what the donor wants from the relationship and bring them on your journey. As scientists, we want to build long-term relationships with people because doing science takes a long time.”

Numerous nonprofits are adjusting their policies to ensure public access to the fruits of funded research, says Marc Hurlbert, PhD, executive director of the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade in New York City. These requirements for grantees won't necessarily end with publishing a paper. “For instance, who cited your paper?” he asks. “Did you write a blog about it? Did you communicate to the general public? If you created cell lines, did you share them?”

He also stresses that patients and their communities want to do more than donate—they want to get involved. For example, Avon funds the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation's Army of Women Program, which has enlisted 360,000 women interested in breast cancer research. “By joining the army, they are potentially willing to join in studies, whether they are healthy or breast cancer patients,” Hurlbert explains. “We e-mail the entire army every week or two with opportunities to participate in clinical studies.”

Private funding can offer additional benefits, especially for younger investigators, such as networking opportunities unlike any a National Cancer Institute grant might provide, says Fleshman of the PanCAN.

“We don't just give junior researchers the funding but mentorship opportunities and community,” she says. “We bring them together and put them in the same room, and they're excited to meet others and to work together. They also are in contact with senior scientists they wouldn't expect to work with at this level of their careers.”

Researchers should keep in mind that their private funding partners (and thus they themselves) may be competing nationally or globally for support.

“It's hard to turn on the TV or listen to the radio on your drive and not hear advertising for a medical institution,” Paresky remarks. “That's really new, in the past 3 or 4 years. Moreover, many cancer centers from around the country are doing fundraising events and advertising right in our backyard in Boston.”

Increasingly, this trend also crosses national boundaries. Research at the Crick Center “is globally significant, and we've received donations from outside the UK, including one from a foundation in the Middle East and one from the United States,” notes Malagnini. —Eric Bender