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James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Science for sale: A new kind of donor is transforming medical research Add to ...

Dr. Weiss believes that institutions should give donors regular reports on how their money has been spent. “But beyond that, it is not appropriate for donors to be involved in how research is conducted. If that's allowed to happen, the sanctity of academic freedom becomes very much at risk.”

He once had a major donor say, “If you will create a program in this area, I will give you the money for it.” The institute did not have an expert in the field, he says, and putting together a new program would have meant taking resources away from another area. He turned the gift down.

The SickKids Foundation, which raises about $100-million a year, has walked away from large donations. “As soon as a gift becomes one in which involvement turns to influence, then it's not really a gift any more,” says Ted Garrard, CEO of the foundation.

To make the most of the donations, a gift has to jibe with the hospital's priorities – as it did with the renovation of the operating rooms. Detailed agreements are then negotiated and signed that set out the obligations of donor and recipient.

Mr. Garrard feels that most donors are not interested in “control” so much as “engagement and involvement.”

Major donors no longer just come to the table with accountants and lawyers, he says. Some have even hired independent scientists to assess the work of researchers they are considering funding.

“They want to be seen to be associated with a cause and feel like they are a part of the solution,” Mr. Garrard says. “They don't write a blank cheque any more.”

SIDEBAR: The art of the ask

Canada is a small pond and its pool of philanthropists even smaller. Competition for major gifts pits the pleas of patients against the poor, students against scientists. Diseases go head to head.

With “fewer donors giving more money” says Ted Garrard, CEO of the SickKids Foundation, one of the country’s largest and most successful fundraisers, having central control over “the pitches” and “the asks” is crucial. This way the hospital can be sure donations flow where they’re needed.

Having staff members make their own arrangements with private patrons can muddy the fundraising process for everyone, says Mr. Garrard.

“You don’t want (staff members) asking out of context, asking for things they shouldn’t. You don’t want rogue asks,” he says. “You don’t want every scientist in the country running to (Canadian businessmen) Seymour Schulich or Rob McEwen …asking for too much, or for the wrong thing.

“If you ask too early, you can scare off a potential donor, or get a lower amount than you would have otherwise if you had waited. It is sort of an art.”

To that end, hospitals and universities offer communications seminars and coaching sessions to teach staff how to sell their work to potential donors, to appeal to their particular motivations and to listen. In some cases, they run through scripts to ensure the meeting moves the prospect forward.

“It is so critical to involve the researchers,” says Mr. Garrard. “These are the people who can tell their stories, describe what they need and why they need it.”

After all, turning a prospect into a patron - the “cultivation cycle,” as they call it in the fundraising business - has never taken so long. More than a decade can disappear between cold call and deal closure, blind date and commitment.

The historic $30-million the Garron family gave for cancer care and research to Sick Kids last fall, believed to be the largest single gift to a pediatric centre anywhere in North America, began with a telephone call 11 years ago and a decade of continued contact. The hospital made its initial contact, Mr. Garrard said, knowing that Myron and Berna Garron had a personal connection to the hospital, since their 13-year-old son Michael, who died of cancer in 1975, had been treated at Sick Kids for many years.

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