Setting your sights on an award from a private foundation is quite different from applying for a federal grant. Without the experience and contacts of our team of development officers, you might be wasting your time. While most major foundations post their guidelines on their Web sites, this is only an indication of their focus, and not the whole story. Today, professionals who broaden the early focus of their founders run most major foundations. Professional program officers who are alert to federal initiatives put their funds where they will have most impact. They are often less interested in supporting basic science research than applied research, although in the case of the recent W.M. Keck Foundation award, the opposite is true.
The history of Keck Foundation support for research at U.Va. began in the late 1980s when the University made a$1.165M. Academic Enhancement Program award to Michael Menaker and Gene Block in Biology and Michael Thorner in the School of Medicine to support the Biodynamics Institute. Subsequently, the Institute became the Center for Biological Timing (CBT) and in 1991 received a $5 M. National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center award that was to last for eleven years, and eventually brought in more than $14.5 M in NSF support. Menaker, Block, and Thorner initiated conversations with the Keck Foundation in 1988, but it was not until after NSF announced its support that the Foundation funded a $300,000 proposal that allowed CBT to recruit an outstanding faculty member from the Rockefeller University and to purchase additional equipment.
In 1994, following this success, the Keck Foundation invited and funded a proposal, this time for $750,000 from the School of Medicine, to support the application of chemistry professor Don Hunt's work and to establish the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Biomedical Mass Spectrometry. Most recently, Keck awarded a $1M. grant to the Center for Cellular Imaging to support development of a new type of high-resolution, high-speed microscope for visualizing dynamic biological processes in living cells. This Center too was given start-up money through a University-sponsored Academic Enhancement Program grant, and involves a group of College of Arts and Sciences and Medical School faculty members led by David Brautigan. In Brautigan's opinion, Plank's involvement was indispensable at each step of the process of obtaining this award, and especially in the preparation of the initial letter of intent.
Plank refers to this as a qualifying process for the foundation, building confidence and good relationships based on measurable successes. Development officers will work with faculty to develop a letter of inquiry to carefully selected foundations to gauge if they are interested in supporting their research. Some foundations such as the Keck and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund will review only one proposal per institution in each funding cycle, matching the foundation's interests with the proposal submitted. For major initiatives, most foundations expect that the University will express its commitment to a proposed activity by institutional cost sharing.