Image courtesy of EMBL


Now is the time for life sciences institutes – and their alumni

by Nik Miller - 3 December 2020


As we turn to the life sciences for answers to the pandemic, Nik Miller considers how former students and staff can help these organisations catalyse innovation and impact.

In the midst of COVID-19, many in Europe are looking increasingly to life science institutes across the continent. The critical work of these organisations offers hope – in tackling the pandemic, and for the prevention of future outbreaks. It is they who make the scientists of the future, and who bring nations together in the best interests of science – and society.

An opportunity
It is surprising therefore that most life sciences institutes in Europe have only recently begun to think seriously about how alumni could support their efforts, and how integrated advancement (including communications and fundraising) can catalyse innovation and impact.

The timing for this attention is good, as the world holds a hopeful magnifying glass to developments in life sciences. But there is much more than good timing to this golden opportunity for these organisations.

Alumni from these institutes often leave with a powerful sense of affinity. These are the places where researchers carry out their postdoctoral study, which is typically the springboard to an academic or industry career. For so many alumni that I speak to, their former institute has shaped their scientific ambitions and opened the door to pursuing their passions for a lifetime.

These alumni communities tend also to be relatively small compared to larger institutions, and are bonded by a collective passion for science, and an institutional experience that is both transformative and intimate. Often, this will have involved being part of small, lab-based teams working together over years, led by a ubiquitous senior scientist.

Catalysed by evidence
Add to this the growing evidence that alumni can support institutes in some of their most pressing strategic needs, and the case for focusing on advancement is made. Many institutes are already engaging diverse scientific talent through, for example: alumni networks (see EMBL’s work in this area, where I’m an energetic advocate and advisor, and the impact evidence we helped them to develop); collaborations with industry; postdoctoral career progression; and funding new strands of science and the facilities that enable this (see Institut Pasteur, where we’ve been advising on their ‘four missions for a healthier world’).

It is for these reasons, and more, that I was delighted to facilitate the CASE Advancement Summit for Life Sciences, in October 2020. It was clear from the event that the need for these organisations is increasing; and that advancement can play a key role in supporting strategic priorities. But where should they start?

Start with a story
Often, the first task for institutes that want to develop advancement activities is to articulate their cause more compellingly: why does the institute exist? What difference do we make in the world? What more could we do with increased engagement and funding?

In our experience, those working in life sciences are expert at describing what they do, but less rehearsed at sharing the difference that fundamental and applied sciences make in the world. It is also critical to be able to describe how, while scientific discovery is underpinned by public funding, philanthropy can amplify impact and unlock new innovations by enabling ‘blue skies’ research.

The paradigm shift in UK philanthropy here is remarkable, as we’ve seen attitudes to funding traditionally ‘public’ endeavours changing – most evident through our work with NHS Charities Together.

Bring the joy
While making science accessible is critical; so too is making philanthropy engaging, and enjoyable. Some years back, as the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Barcelona began to think about fundraising, we concluded that dancing was the way donors would get hooked. The video of the faculty, including many of the most senior people, dancing to inspire philanthropy for the cause they work for every day is available here:

It is entertaining, meaningful and poignant in equal measure. Millions of Euros were raised. As ever, stories and context matter.

Give reasons to stay connected
The most successful alumni relationships are often symbiotic – both institute and alumnus benefit from engaging. Especially in the early stages of developing advancement activities, giving your busy alumni reasons to stay connected is essential. The point of relevance will vary – for some alumni, nostalgia and affection may be enough, but others will need more. The challenge of relevance, the underlying principle for all advancement professionals, should be more straightforward for life science institutes – since the alumni body is more homogenous than for most other educational institutions.

Relevance and meaning are the beating heart
The majority of alumni will be working in life sciences, as academics, or in industry. For many, access to ideas and talent will motivate continued connections, or access to facilities (scientific and conferencing), and the esteem that comes from maintaining a link with a prestigious institute. At EMBL, for example, more than a quarter of alumni have been an inventor on a patent application, and recognise their time at their alma mater as key to this; and half indicate that they have ‘introduced aspects of the EMBL culture’ at the organisation they progressed to. Alumni can also support efforts to diversify scientific talent, for example with respect to gender or race – by being role models and identifying diverse talent in institutes.

More fundamentally, we all need to move from a narrative built on “please help us…” to one that dances to a different tune: “together we can advance the great cause of life sciences”. It is the difference between saying “please can you help by coaching a young scientist?” and “we can give you access to the wonderful talent we have in our labs, and you can advance life sciences by inspiring the next generation of scientists”.

The words we choose in these exchanges really matter.

Making it work
So how do institutes make this work? Our conversation at the CASE Summit provided some practical pointers. There was much discussion about effective data gathering and storage, and the topic of GDPR (about which we have published extensive guidance). Other aspects, including volunteer management (check out our earlier blog on this), connecting fundraising with wider engagement, and metrics for success (see here for some practical guidance), were also debated in detail. These are familiar topics for us at More and our clients, and form the essential building blocks of a successful programme.

Silver linings
The pandemic has affected us all in so many ways, from the immediately shocking to the long-term, as well as impacts that we are yet to fully understand. Despite the challenges, at More we still expect positives to emerge, as we wrote about back in April. One such expectation is that the relevance, importance and prospects of Europe’s life science institutes will be amplified; and that a wider community, including alumni, will experience the joy of being part of this. Advancement professionals in these vital places will be part of this joy, as they connect organisational ambitions with amplified public interest – and we are energised to be part of this journey with so many of our clients.

About the author
For over 15 years, Nik Miller has supported organisations to better engage their alumni, as well as publishing widely on alumni engagement strategies. To discuss your work, and how we can collaborate to advance your great ambitions, contact Nik on nmiller@morepartnership.com.