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Fundraising for Research: the joy of the job

by Shaun Horan | Jul 22, 2020 | Fundraising

As a fundraiser in a university or research laboratory, you have one of the best jobs there is.

You get to spend time speaking to amazing researchers who are genuinely trying to change the world with their work, and then you get to go and speak to donors who can make that change happen.

But do donors give to this area, and if so, how can you help to make that happen?

Well, all the evidence from the Coutts philanthropic reports showed that the biggest gifts from £million donors went to Education and Research. So yes, donors will give significantly to this area. But how do you alert them to your cause, and catch their interest? You need three things: a great Project, wealthy and interested Prospects, and enthusiastic and hardworking Askers.


As a university fundraiser for over a decade, I found that the easiest projects to “sell” were those really ambitious research projects that reached for the stars. The old saying, “you don’t get millions for $5 ideas” is certainly true; you have to have real ambition and shape what you are discussing with donors, particularly where it is their real area of passion. They need to know that you know your stuff, and they will want to speak to the research leader involved.

Sometimes this will come out of a conversation with a donor. They will tell you about a key interest of theirs, and you will then have the task of seeing if that fits with the priorities of your institution. If it does, then you have a lot of exciting work to do to bring the project to fruition. At other times the project will be of key interest to your institution, and you will start out with that project in speaking to the prospective donor.

Either way, you will need the following: absolute clarity in the vision for the project; what need it is going to fulfil or solve; what the outcome is going to be; what the cost is.


Very clearly, you could have the most wonderful project worked out with precise detail, but if you don’t know anyone who is going to give to it then you’re going to struggle. We work with a number of institutes and universities to help them put together prospect lists for specific projects. You need to align the contacts the institution already has with those who have a real interest in the area you are looking at, aligned with an ability to give a transformative gift. Alumni could help you here, but usually they are only a start – the biggest gifts are not all alumni-driven, and there is no reason why an institute or research charity cannot engage the interest of a potential donor, build a great and lasting relationship with them, and develop a really transformative gift.


I said above that you need great prospective donors to be able to give to great projects. That is absolutely true. However, the vital ingredient that brings all of these together is the right team of “askers”.

Not everyone wants to ask for big gifts. It’s been far less a part of British culture than it has in the USA, but it has hugely developed here in the last 20 years. Put very simply, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s true of almost everything in life, and it’s definitely true of philanthropy. You have to let people know what you need (very precisely), why you need it, and when.

That’s where professional fundraising comes in. Most researchers never intended to be fundraisers – why should they? Their job is to have the £million ideas that change the world. You need to work with a fundraising team that knows what it is doing, that will help you develop a case, identify the right donors, put together the right team of askers, and help you get the gift over the line.

I use the phrase “team of askers” because the fundraisers can’t do this alone. It will take involved leadership from the institution, inspiring researchers, brilliant fundraisers, and a lot of hard work in building long-lasting relationships.

We help universities and research institutes in doing the above every day. It’s what we do, and we love it. We particularly love helping you to get the gift that could just change the world. Given the times we are living in, that has never felt more important.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in fundraising.