PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Teaching Toolbox
Research - The Big Ask

by Douglas M. Green

Illustration by Jean Francois Podevin c/o theispotHave you ever had colleagues who tried to renew long-term grants, only to discover that the money had dried up? If it was their sole source of support, you may have even thought to yourself how foolish it was for them to have put all their eggs into one basket. To keep such a crisis from happening to you, make sure that you diversify your funding base.

One very productive but underused source of financial support is soliciting funds directly from an individual donor or foundation. Most professors have very little experience dealing with philanthropic donors, but your school almost certainly has an office that specializes in just this activity. These offices are usually called development, alumni relations or, most commonly, advancement.

The advancement office coordinates any approach that your university makes to prospective donors. This strategy prevents potential benefactors from being barraged with requests from throughout the university, which would give the correct impression that the school doesn't have its act together. Prospective donors want to know that all parts of the university are working together as one big unit.

To get research dollars from individual donors, first write a one page white paper, succinctly describing your research concept in layman's terms. Have it critiqued by a colleague from another department, then meet with your chair and discuss your ideas in depth and get his or her support. You may need to talk with your chair several times before arranging a meeting with the dean. Getting "buy-in" at this level is the most important step, because without a green light from the dean, your advancement office will usually not work with you.

The advancement office matches academic programs with donors. Matchmaking requires frequent communication with faculty members and, often, years of developing strong personal relationships with many potential donors. As researchers, it's our job to come up with well-considered research concepts, and it's advancement's job to sell them.

Alumni are often willing to help their alma maters, and as donors they share some common characteristics. Alums respond more favorably if they feel good about the experience they had as an undergraduate, and are often interested in funding projects that relate to student development, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. In particular, engineers tend to be more selective in their philanthropy, and usually make decisions about donation requests more rapidly than nonengineers.

Eventually, the needs of the faculty and the interests of the donor must merge before the advancement office is willing to arrange what they call The Big Ask. As with any negotiation, there is usually some give and take on both sides in the process of finding common ground between the donor and faculty member. Normally, presidents and deans make The Big Ask, but chairs will often undertake this task if the dollar figure is modest.

Securing donations is a cooperative exercise between the advancement officer and the faculty member, requiring seamless communication that some describe as a "Vulcan mind meld." Advancement efforts rarely produce quick results, and sometimes fail to yield anything at all. But you must remember that your objective is to avoid the fate of the unfunded.

To quote Churchill, "Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!"


Douglas M. Green is chair of the ASEE's Engineering Research Council
and dean of engineering at Marquette University.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

AAAS Science, Engineering, and Diplomacy Fellowships

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: ~$40,000
    Deadline: Jan. 15
    Description: For the more effective use of scientific and technical knowledge in foreign affairs and societal problems (U.S. citizens only)
    Contact: Claudia Sturges, Project Director, (202) 326-6600, fax (202) 289-4950,
    e-mail:, or see


DOE Nuclear Engineering Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $10,000 to $2 million; average $200,000
    Deadline: Applications accepted anytime
    Description: Research efforts aimed at strengthening university-based nuclear engineering programs
    Contact: Director, Nuclear Engineering Research, University and Science Education Grants, Office of Energy Research, (202) 586-8949, or see


NIGMS Biophysics Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $21,000 to $1.445 million; average $191,757
    Deadline: Feb. 1, Jun. 1, Oct. 1.
    Description: Application of physical principles to biological research, and practical engineering applications
    Contact: Carol Tippery, Chief Grants Management Officer, (301) 594-5135, or see


Grant profiles reprinted from Directory of Research Grants 1999; The Oryx Press; 1999; 1,232 pp., $135. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; .

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