The giving list: supporting
science with annual donations

Fundraising campaigns — from ice bucket challenges to pink cleats on the football field –have been all the craze lately, saturating our social media feeds and news headlines.

While it’s refreshing to see people pitching in to support groups that return a portion of funds to biomedical research, these donation fads can quickly fizzle out. Plus, many nonprofit research and science-education programs rely on consistent, year-round donations.

I use the end of the year as a mental reminder to plan my annual giving list comprised of worthy science and education causes. Also, I have transitioned to making donations in lieu of giving materialistic holiday gifts to maximize my donation potential and promote a philanthropic culture.

If you care about grassroots science initiatives or supporting young scientists, you too can adopt a year-end tradition and include science on your annual giving list.

Contribute to your alumni associations and university foundations

State funding for public colleges and universities continues to decline across the nation. At one of my alma maters, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, direct state support has decreased from 50 percent in 1987 to 11.9 percent in 2014.

Dick Norton, a regional director with the University of Illinois Foundation, explains the vital role of alumni support in continuing university operations: “In FY14, alumni were the second-largest source of donors to the University of Illinois. They designated $35.8 million for student support. That funding helps defray some of the educational debt that now saddles students.”

Norton adds, “The burden of debt frequently has repercussions on students’ future employment, dictating when and where they work. There are many financial ways for alumni donors to support students at their alma mater. Endowed scholarships, for example, can provide student assistance in perpetuity.”

When I graduated from college, I made a promise to contribute to the Chemistry Alumni Scholarship fund that supported me during my undergraduate days. I now give annually to that scholarship fund. Plus, I am a contributing member to the alumni association at my former graduate school institution. 

In addition to supporting students, active involvement with alumni associations provides endless benefits. Alumni connections are strong and provide an important networking avenue, while many alumni associations offer career-development resources to support you throughout your lifetime.

Get involved with citizen science projects

If you are strapped for cash, you can volunteer with citizen science projects to help speed up research, provide valuable data and interpret data sets.  SciStarter features a collection of more than 850 projects open to the public. Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter and Science Cheerleader, explains, “There is something for everyone: bird lovers, armchair astronomers, nature enthusiasts, concerned citizens, pet owners, DIYers and hobbyists.” Projects range from playing online games to tracking wildlife in your backyard.

Cavalier says she sees an advantage for scientists to be involved with citizen science projects, especially for projects in need of community leaders or that require data interpretation. She also said she has observed the emergence of a new project type where the public directly provides input on science policy issues (e.g., Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative).

Donate funds to nonprofit science organizations and crowdfunding projects

Nonprofit research and education centers depend on private donors to sustain their operations. I make a yearly contribution to Discover Life in America, a nonprofit that runs citizen science projects in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. DLiA is on a mission to identify all the living species in the national park to inform biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Todd Witcher, executive director of DLiA, emphasizes the importance of leveraging private donations for general operating support. “This is the most difficult line item to find funding for,” he says, “and generally private donations are not restricted or designated for specific projects.” Unrestricted funds can be used for day-to-day needs, including staff wages and to keep the lights on.

Funds also may be raised directly from the public for specific research projects via crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo, Experiment and Petridish. You can back a number of innovative research projects or support local education initiatives, such as the neighborhood biohacker space.

Help buy needed STEM education materials for K12 classrooms

Thousands of inspiring K-12 classroom teachers seek funds on DonorsChoose.org to purchase equipment and supplies. Teachers work with limited budgets and thus turn to private funding for student-enrichment opportunities.

For example, special education teacher Shani Cutler is raising funds for a classroom microscope via her crowdfunding project called The Unseen World. If her funding goal is met, Cutler says, the microscope will enhance her classroom: “The unseen world of cells and cellular structure is a vital part of a student’s understanding of the parts of a whole concept — mineral composition, symbiotic organisms, microscopy and so many more. A microscope is an essential part of any successful scientific journey.” 

Cutler adds, “When students have access to hands-on manipulatives and tools for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it feeds to their natural curiosities about the world around them. When they are interested, they are more likely to go beyond the textbook and explore possible fields in the STEM areas that they may have not considered.”

Instead of holiday gifts this year, you can donate to a classroom in honor of friends and family or buy DonorsChoose.org gift cards so that recipients can pick out their own projects to fund.

Support the professional development of a young scientist

Membership fees for professional societies add up quickly, especially for early-career scientists who are in career transitions. Think about purchasing a professional membership or donating funds toward travel to a science conference for a young scientist in your life. A prepaid money card with a note that the money is to be used to support their awesome science is a good way to give, too.

Author’s note: In the U.S., charitable contributions can be deducted on federal income taxes when itemizing deductions on a tax return. Consult a tax professional for details.
Donna Kridelbaugh Donna Kridelbaugh (@science_mentor) is a communications consultant and founder of ScienceMentor.Me. Her mission is to create an online field guide to self-mentoring in science careers. She offers writing, editing and marketing services for early-career professionals who are ready to advance their career to the next level. Learn more at http://sciencementor.me/