Philanthropy and Discovery: The Necessity of Private Dollars

Does private charitable giving really matter when it comes to medical and scientific research?

The government already funds so many projects, research institutions, and laboratories – so why would anyone need to give more to these places? Do private dollars even make a difference in regards to medical discovery?

Government Funding or Private Giving?

While it’s true that medical funding from the government can aid in medical and scientific advancement, there is a strong argument to be made that private giving is the true catalyst behind many of the marque discoveries and advancements we’ve made. We’ve mentioned it before here, and here, and here, but private giving is always going to be a necessity when it comes to solving the woes of the world.

There are characteristics baked into the nature of private dollars that make them more advantageous and useful, especially in the arena of research and discovery, than those tax dollars that government redirects. Private dollars freely given by philanthropists offer more flexibility, agility, and renewability, and often a closer connection to the community. All of this benefits from the research.

The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Karl Zinsmeister, author of the exhaustive Almanac of American Philanthropy, explains in a recent article how medical research is dependent upon private dollars.

I once called up the directors of some of the top research labs in the U.S. and asked them to compare the importance at their facilities of government grants versus donated dollars. Every one told me that donated money is absolutely crucial to their success—because it can be so much more innovative. The flexibility, speed, and nimbleness of philanthropic medical funding, they explained, makes it far more consequential than just the dollars involved.

Federal grants come wrapped in paperwork and exhaustive requirements. That’s why even the most productive researchers say they spend a third or more of their time just applying to agencies. Federal grants have tight strictures. Their funds can’t be transferred to alternate projects, for instance, even if you reach a dead end on the work you applied for. …

Many of these disadvantages of government funding are reversed by philanthropic money. Donors are often willing to bet on new investigators and unproven ideas. They will buy machinery, and buildings, and assistants for scientists who are producing, while government grants can only be used for one rigidly defined experiment. Donated funds can be shifted around by recipients from one project to another, to feed whichever approach is progressing best. These are the reasons why even in places where gift money is smaller in volume than government money, it frequently produces much bigger returns.

From life-altering medicines to innovative new procedures and groundbreaking technological advancements, it’s truly impossible to quantify how many lives have been changed and saved by medical discoveries funded by private charitable dollars.

Giving to Medical Causes

DonorsTrust account-holders frequently recommend grants to many medical-related causes. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Insight for the Blind, Hospice of the Valley, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are examples of such groups.

If you want to support medical or scientific discoveries, here are a few ideas on how to do so effectively.

Know Your Goal

Just as with any aspect of your philanthropy, giving to medical causes should be a fit with your broader philanthropic goals. Do you vaguely want to “cure cancer” or do you actually care about finding a cure for that specific cancer that your family member faced? Don’t buy generic if you care about the brand – find an organization with a mission built around what you care about, or specifically target your funding to the project that matches your goals.

Accept Change

As Zinsmeiser notes in the quotation above, research into new discoveries can sometimes veer toward unexpected outcomes. Change can be needed. Your private giving helps get to failure faster, which means getting on to success faster. Accepting change, however, doesn’t mean accepting silence. Demand communication from the groups you support so you know when things do change.

Understand the Funding Balance

How much money does the project or organization get from government? It is something we look into with every grant we make, and we generally won’t make a grant when the organization takes more than a quarter of its revenue from government. While we like that benchmark, there is no magic metric. The important thing is to understand the funding balance and, to the extent possible, understand the trade-offs that come with increased government funding.

To me, philanthropy is about changing the world for the better. You can always find exceptions, but opening new frontiers to increase human health and well-being or unlocking new technologies that advance prosperity seem to meet that test. As always, the key is to know your goal.


  • Lydia Pitea

    Lydia Pitea is the Marketing and Events Manager at DonorsTrust. Her primary responsibilities include coordinating events for the Trust, digital marketing, and assisting with content creation and donor communications. Lydia joined DonorsTrust in 2016 as a participant in the Koch Associate Program. Previously, she worked for PSEG, the major utility company of New Jersey, with the Project Public Affairs team and the Customer Technologies team. Lydia is a graduate of Montclair State University in New Jersey, where she received her B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Political Science. Lydia is an avid reader and traveler, an excellent petter of cats, and a believer in all things magical (and yes, that means unicorns).

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