How to attract the hidden funding opportunities

Johanna Nalau
6 min readApr 14, 2019

Every wondered why particular wealthy individuals decide to spend significant amounts supporting an idea? But more importantly, how do you reach out to such people and gain their support?

This topic was the focus of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s conference (CASE ASAP conference) where I attended the role of academic leadership and its linkage to philanthropic funding.

CASE focuses on “advancement professionals” who are often the unnoticed group of professionals in organisations who are tasked in leveraging funding from philanthropic sources.

Philanthropic funding is an investment but it differs in nature by one crucial factor: it is more based on values and passion that any other kind of funding because the donor decides to freely give the money in something that they can believe in.

This kind of funding is build via relationships for example with former alumni members or with other individuals or organisations who share a common vision.

I have never been in a room with so many vice chancellors and university presidents, all top leaders in their fields, and who for one day chose to discuss their insights and experiences in gaining financial resources for their institutions and helping to realise the academic mission.

One truism struck me in particular that was iterated by many of the participants:

If you ask for money, you get advice.

If you ask for advice, you get money.

This speaks to the very different nature of this form of funding: it is there to be asked for but you need to be clear on your vision, the impact of that vision, and cultivate professional relationships that can help you finding that resource to fulfil that vision.

Clear big vision will attract big opportunities

I was not surprised the least listening to the speakers to highlight the importance of being clear on your vision and thinking big.

Whoever is pitching a project needs to have the passion to think big; to envision something larger than life that speaks to people, and ignites a shared passion that can result in a massive impact.

This type of funding is really about creating transformative change: demonstrating how, if given resources, one can in effect change the world.

This again comes down to many of the marketing and branding truisms about being able to tell a story that resonates with the audience; the capacity to show clearly how each donation has a direct impact in something at least revolutionary.

But what is probably the most important is this simple question: what is different after the donor has given the gift?

How does an additional resource really change the outcome?

And here it also comes down to your leadership vision: how do you secure funding and direct opportunities to areas where you see a clear need, and have a strong intuition that the values and vision are aligned between both the donor and the institution?

Be bold but adhere to your values

Numerous speakers gave clear examples as to what it meant to be in discussions with potential funders but where they had to in the end make the decision not to accept money.

This included money that was not enough for the purpose that it was sought for, or in cases where the funder did not align with the values of the institution.

Walking away from a 20-million-dollar deal is never easy but what many of these academic leaders showed was that in the end if we know what our values are, we need to be prepared to be bold and abide by those.

In many ways, being bold meant to being bold also about the institution’s vision and not just what the big ideas or funding needs were at the time.

But often it is also about the donor and his or her values and passion: they want to see their name associated with a vision that they believe in.

Leveraging philanthropic funding is about finding that true alignment between the university’s vision and needs, and the donor’s values and passion.

Make a plan for fundraising

What I also found very useful was the way that many of the speakers viewed fundraising: it is an activity that is about building relationships and it’s best done with an actual plan.

We saw some very clear examples of vice chancellors’ yearly plans where they had earmarked particular relationships and activities that they would focus on.

When asked how much time one vice chancellor really spent on fundraising, he said “I spend 100% of my time fundraising, and the other 100% I spend on all the other activities”.

People laughed but it really drove home the point that fundraising is a full-time job especially up at the top where the institution really depends on the leader to leverage funding to fulfil the vision.

But fundraising doesn’t just happen because you happened to have a great lunch with a former alumnus.

Fundraising happens because you devote your time and energy, and plan accordingly.

For example, in Canada, most academics have fundraising as part of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and it is expected that everyone else also participates, not just the leader.

Developing an annual advancement journal where you log in activities monthly that you aim to undertake can help in the journey of developing relationships.

Creating trust for thinking and doing big

The latest book that I am reading “Loonshots: How to nurture the crazy ideas that win wards, cure diseases, and transform industries” by Safi Bahcall has opened my mind to the way ideas develop and I keep coming across one major ingredient:


It is not enough to have a great idea or great vision and just push on.

In order for your idea or vision to actually take hold you need to engage other people who will become spokespeople for your idea.

Put it simply, we cannot forget that “Transfer of ideas requires trust” (p. 21).

During the CASE ASAP day this idea of trust was really the bedrock of all the discussions:

that this form of funding requires a trust to be developed between the institution and the donor, between the idea creator and the promoter and enabler, between the fragile recognition of a hint of greatness and its fruition with the needed resources.

Most of the time money flows between faceless key points in a funding structure: from a name to another name, most often via email and cyberspace, without having an opportunity for human face-to-face connection.

We apply for grants via our research office, tick boxes on a form, the form gets sent somewhere via email, it is collected and forwarded to others for evaluation, and often the final funding decision occurs somewhere very far away from the location of the idea and the person or people who think it is worth pitching for.

But philanthropic funding is different precisely because it is built on and via human to human relationships where people actually meet, brainstorm together, develop the ideas further, and finally come to an either yes or no.

There is a different kind of accountability involved, one where the donor is often keenly involved and the recipients race to deliver a shared project rather than merely accepting the funding and working on the idea inside a black box.

Role of philanthropic funding for climate adaptation

Of course all of this has made me also think what this kind of funding could mean for climate adaptation science, both in terms of funding sources but also increased accountability.

What if the donors, like the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Global Environmental Facility, all of the World Bank funding would have this kind of a relationship with the projects and people that they invest in to undertake and plan for climate adaptation?

First of all, clearly that would be crazy because these big funds and institutions would not be able to operate in the persona way that philanthropic funders can.

But still, it does raise a challenge as to how we fund adaptation and how we ensure that what happens on the ground is a direct example of effective implementation of the vision for the project or program that is also shared by the very people who are the intended beneficiaries: aligning vision, passion and outcomes.

Yet, fostering these kinds of relationships will be crucial for climate adaptation in the future, and is very much part of what authors like Dorie Clark call as “portfolio careers’, being able to leverage funding from multiple sources.

So philanthropic funding is and will be an even more crucial part of that mix, especially in an era where many governments and organisations are reducing the finances available for research and development funding.

In the end, all of this comes down to trust: that you are being trusted that you can deliver what you said you would, and that you can trust that when you take the leap, someone is there to catch you.

So off to develop your advancement journal because the time to start thinking strategically has already started.


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Johanna Nalau

I am a climate adaptation and leadership rule bender, working hard but with a spring in my step to challenge conventional ideas.