Can Science Win Over Philanthropy?

The philanthropic sector is changing, and those changes represent challenges for institutions interested in expanding philanthropic commitments to science and research.
Private philanthropy in the United States now totals over $350 billion per year.  So, how much is that?  It is about the equivalent of private Americans spending the GDP of South Africa every year on public social problem solving. Not, one might say, loose change out of the nation’s sock drawer.
Science and technology represent such a significant part of the pathway to progress of all types. From deepest space to deepest oceans to deepest realms of the human body, it is research, science, and technology that lead the way to solutions. Equally, it is research, science and technology which can help to understand and resolve social problems, from health care to education, to low income housing. S&T is at the heart of much problem solving in our changing world.
So, if that is true, if indeed it is so important, how much of that $350 billion in invested in this root effort?
The short answer is no one knows. The long answer is also no one knows.
No aggregators of giving data in the nonprofits sector choose “research” or “science” as a data domain. Data is gathered and reported in traditional “sectors” (education, health, arts, public welfare, etc.). There is no mechanism for understanding how private philanthropy flows to research or science. And so, there is little data on which to base an understanding of how scientists or science institutions might increase philanthropic commitments to this critical foundation for problem-solving solutions.
Individual giving, both from donors and planned giving (e.g., bequests) represents 80% of all giving. We cannot know how much flows to research or S&T. It is possible, in broad terms, to understand how much institutional (foundation) philanthropy flows. The numbers are not perfect, but they do provide at least some context.
An examination of data from the U.S. Foundation Center indicates that foundation giving for research (we cannot disaggregate beyond this term) represents about 15% of foundation grants and about 5% of foundation dollars. This represents roughly a billion dollars a year. This is almost certainly an underestimate. So let’s say it is off by 50%, and that the investment is $1.5 billion. Let’s say that the same proportions apply to individual giving, yielding about another $14 billion. 
So, private philanthropic resources for research and science may be between $15 and $20 billion per year, or about 4% of total philanthropic giving.
The question then becomes how do we increase that amount?
The philanthropic sector is changing, and those changes represent challenges for institutions interested in expanding philanthropic commitments to science and research.
The coin of the philanthropic realm is now results. Philanthropists – individuals and institutions – are increasingly interested in seeing the results of their giving. They are not interested in donating to problems, they are interested in producing solutions. This is true of major donors and it is increasingly true even of smaller donors and family foundations. In part this emphasis on results is itself a product of trends in the nonprofit sector. The rate of growth in the number of nonprofits exceeds the rate of growth of private giving.  So, there are more organizations chasing relatively fewer dollars. One has to make a choice about the organizations to which one gives, and impact of impact becomes a way to sort among all the supplicants.
In competing for resources on those terms, the problem for research and science, of course, is three fold.
First, knowledge. The whole point of research is to understand what is not understood.  So guaranteeing that there can be results, when often we are trying to understand the problem itself, is difficult at best.
Second, time. Science does not denominate itself in terms of specific time frames.  Most giving is annual; most foundations have, at most, a two or three year timeframe for their grants.  If you are lucky. Science cannot promise findings (let alone solutions!) against such specific time frames. Indeed, to the extent they exist, scientific time frames are decadal. So, even if “results” can be promised, they are not likely to be achieved by next year.
Third, the complexity of knowledge. Many (most) of the problems which science addresses are complex by definition. Progress in one field (physics) may inform progress in another (biology). Progress against one problem (neurology) could inform progress in another (drug addiction treatment). Sometimes this effect is not the point of the research at all, but becomes a side benefit of knowledge itself. So, a funder’s focus on “results” from support to one area of research may produce “results” in another area in which the funder is, in fact, not interested.
Can science compete for philanthropy in this new world of impact expectations?  Not unless it talks to philanthropy. Science must become part of the philanthropic dialogue.  Scientific institutions and S&T leaders must write about philanthropy; they must be present at philanthropic convenings; they must do their homework and explicate the relationship between resources and results. They must engage in the philanthropic marketplace if they hope to raise their 4% market share of the annual American private expenditure on philanthropy.