Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Interview: Funding Forecasts

The greatest challenge to serious science and exploration in the 21st Century is not political unrest in some far-flung, exotic land or the ravages of Nature. It is, pure and simple, "funding." Bill Vartorella and Don Keel recently gave their perspectives at an exploration seminar in NYC on how and why entrepreneurship and niche marketing are crucial to successful fundraising--particularly in times of economic downturns. While most scientists face odds of 7 in 100 of securing financial support in the U.S., Vartorella and Keel presented strategies and tactics aimed at improvingresearchers' chances globally, particularly with the little-known funders whose annual reports disclose 20% grant award rates. "The conventional wisdom is that September 11th changed the landscape of fundraising," Vartorella said. "Maybe, maybe not. If you look at the data closely, they indicate pockets of both strengths and weaknesses. Not every nonprofit is healthy. Not every scientific endeavor is based upon strong economics. Not every Board understands its true role--fundraising--or the Mission of a scientific Institute." In short, both Keel and Vartorella believe that a long-anticipated shake-out is imminent in the nonprofit sector (the "Third Sector") which may provide unparalleled opportunities for both laboratory and field scientists capable of moving from the old, patriarchal model of supporting science to an aggressive, entrepreneurial model based upon market research and meeting donor Mission--without adversely impacting the goals and objectives of serious science. The scientist of the future is going to have to be intellectually agile, capable of engendering new consortial alliances worldwide, and prepared to handle economic chaos, Vartorella believes. "Scientists are going to have to create economic infrastructure in the form of Institutes and Endowments that provide for long-term growth and self-sustainability," he said. "Going to the governmental well for scientific funding year-after-year is a formula for disaster, particularly in cash-strapped developing nations." According to Vartorella, the better approach is a balance of corporate, foundation, and--particularly--individual donations, with ever-decreasing dependence upon government. Keel agrees. "Like it or not, it's all about Boards, capital campaigns, endowments, or what I call "Investment Philanthropy," Keel explained. "People give money topeople, not ideas." Keel's Investment Philanthropy Model looks at the various constituencies that make up a donor pool, how theyinteract, and the leadership role of Boards in energizing fundraising. "Scientists need Boards that can give or get money," Keel said. "Board recruitment and retention are key to the process. If scientists believe they can depend upon the development office of their university to help them, they are sadly mistaken. Colleges are fighting tooth-and-nail for students and facilities to attract them. Add to that institutional overheads of 40% or more in the U.S. for any grant a scientist brings to the table and the deck is stacked against the individual researcher, no matter how talented s/he is." Moreover, they believe scientists and field explorers have taken the path of most resistance in trying to get funded. "There are foundations that traditionally have funded one-in-five projects or more, albeit for relatively small amounts of money," Vartorella asserted. Scientists have ignored them, probably because they don't know they exist. "Worse, scientists don't seem to understand the new model for corporate philanthropy is driven by a combination of market forces and a giving formula that emphasizes mentoring, in-kind contributions of gear and supplies, and cash--in that order." The facilitators pointed out that some U.S. $50-100 billion is probably available for science and exploration next year--much more if event sponsorships and niche marketing to core consumers is added into the equation. Plus, the demographic of the donor is changing, according to Keel. "The white, liberal, affluent male is slowly dying off as a donor," Keel noted. "The new donor is much more the changing face of America--and female. That should play extremely well for the field scientists in exotic locales working with endangered big cats or trying to rescue ancient tombs from environmental degradation or looting. And for the researcher on the cutting edge of health sciences--particularly, women's health--or the prevention of malaria, which some estimate has killed more than half the people who have ever lived on Earth--the opportunity for funding may be extraordinary." "Our individual perspectives are different, but coalesce around entrepreneurship and the need, sometimes, to reinvent the wheel," Vartorella pointed out. Competition for money is keen and becoming more intense in a global village driven by the Internet and the desires of "have-not" nations to have access to technology and transnational dollars. "Ironically, if we look at nonprofit funding worldwide for virtually every imaginable kind of charity, some $10,000 per second is donated in either in-kind contributions (equipment, supplies, etc.) or cash. Yet, historical perspective can be misleading, especially during periods of turbulent stock markets, as foundations and corporations peg donations to performance. Scientific field seasons and related laboratory analyses can no longer be carried out on "shoestring budgets," as affiliated universities clamor for indirect cost support averaging roughly 40%--at least in the U.S. That "override" on the budget--legitimate or not--raises serious questions with foundations, corporations, and individual donors who strive to allocate limited financial resources to core science only, Vartorella explainded. "Furthermore, philanthropy is becoming much more entrepreneurial. Gone are the days of a formula for donations. Corporations, for example, are moving more and more to a sponsorship model, in which niche constituencies (read: specific target consumers and their geodemography) are central focus." Foundations--more than 50,000 in the U.S. alone--are receiving record numbers of proposals and applications, estimated well above 1 million annually. That translates to about 2,740 daily, with some 192 funded. In other words, for the uninitiated randomly tossing proposals "over the transom", chances are roughly 7%.
Plus, other forces are at work which cloud the picture:
1) Some 110,000 new nonprofits have been created in the U.S. alone during the past three years and are competing for the less restrictive funding traditionally awarded by corporations.
2) Science monies are under attack, as the U.S. Federal Government moves away from funding pure research to encouraging private enterprise to fill the gap. In developing nations, clean water and food security challenges continue to plague society, exasperating the constant "brain drain" of scientists who seek safe havens in laboratories in the West.
3) Roughly 6,000 Expeditions will take to the field this year--in almost direct competition for dollars with the 6,500 natural history museums and collections around the world which are mainly in desperate straits for funding to conserve their collections and to detail biodiversity.
4) "Accountability" is now the watchword, as Expeditions long on adventure and short on science must face corporate managers who demand to know how such projects help their companies meet the bottom line through exposure to new markets or patents.
5) Corporate Volunteerism is now the lead component in a successful funding equation that includes first--corporate employee support, second--in-kind contributions of equipment & supplies, and--finally--cash.
6) Foundations, globally, are demanding consortial efforts, and thereby discouraging the single applicant.
7) Developing Nations are clamoring for access to technology--especially the Internet--and are increasingly protective of their natural resources & biota collections, which they fear will be digitized and available on-line, thereby making visits to their countries unnecessary and choking much-needed foreign hard currency.
8) Finally, states and provinces worldwide are now competing with scientists for funding from central governments. The era of scientific dependence upon Big Government for funding is virtually over. To borrow a title from Aldous Huxley, scientists are facing a "Brave New World" in which arcane, academic projects must stand up not only the to rigor of peer review, but the brutal competition of an ever-changing global marketplace.
In short, the day of funding science and exploration for their own sake or for "pure knowledge" with questionable applications is over.

No comments: