Nonprofit organizations such as AAAS depend on the generosity of friends—people who care about the group’s mission and are willing to make contributions to support it.
Finding those people is where Juli Staiano comes in.
Since 2008, Staiano has been the director of the Office of Philanthropy and Strategic Partnerships at AAAS, an office that has taken on new importance in an era of tight budgets. Tax-deductible gifts from AAAS members and other donors help fuel a variety of programs to boost science and science literacy in the United States and abroad, from promoting classroom projects for grade schoolers to fellowships that help spread the facts about climate change.
Staiano talked with MemberCentral recently about that role and how it’s changed in the past few years.
Q: How did you get into this arm of the business?
Staiano: I started in the arts. I had prepared to work in the art museum world, in the business of art. At the time, people didn’t really know about careers in fundraising—that wasn’t really something you pursued. But you knew about nonprofits, and you knew about business, and to me, that ended up equaling fundraising.
Q: How has the work of raising money changed in the last decade or so, and how has AAAS had to change with it?
Staiano: We’re doing a lot more work with individuals who use their philanthropy to advance the things they care about. We’re starting to think and communicate more effectively about what it is that AAAS is doing to make a difference in the world, and how we connect that with philanthropists who also want to make a difference.
Q: How have changes in science funding affected the philanthropy program?
Staiano: People are starting to realize that traditional funding mechanisms are changing, so that maybe there won’t always be enough federal funding. There never was, but we’re now starting to anticipate potential changes to even the levels of funding there have been from the federal government. More and more, philanthropists are stepping in to provide additional funding for science. There is an organization called the Science Philanthropy Alliance that has been created to help individuals who have substantial amounts of money to invest in basic research to understand the most high-impact ways to do that. It’s really exciting. The idea of what role philanthropy can and should play in complementing what the government and corporations invest in research is an evolving one, and I think it could make a real difference.
Also, philanthropists care a lot more now than they ever have about not just giving to something that’s important to them, but also seeing the results of their philanthropy. So it is not enough to have a good idea. We have to be prepared, as any charity would, to say, "Here’s the difference we’re planning to make, and here’s how we’re going to measure it and show how well we’ve done." There’s more of a mentality of making an investment in a business sense than there used to be.
Q: What’s been the most satisfying part of the job for you?
We’re seeing people start to care more about this, and seeing more members choose to become donors, too. These gifts are starting to make a difference. We’ve worked really hard for that—it’s not happening by accident. And it’s really exciting to me, because all of a sudden other people are excited about this, too.
When we build a solid regular base of philanthropy that becomes more than 10 to 15 percent of our budget, it helps us become an even more high-impact organization and a more creative organization. Like any nonprofit, the time people have to spend doing their own fundraising takes away from doing the work itself. The more philanthropy plays a role in supporting and sustaining programs, the more creative we can be and the more time we can spend actually making a difference.
Q: AAAS just got a $1 million gift from David Evans Shaw, a AAAS board member. Tell us a little bit about how that will be put to work.
Staiano: That funding has begun what is going to be a major national initiative to advance science in national parks around the country—and not only that, but use the national parks as a platform to engage young people and non-scientists in caring about science. The idea is to get people who care about and really love the parks to understand the science behind the scenery.
A piece of that will be funding programs in and out of classrooms , including activities that use the parks as inspiration for citizen science experiments. Kids in schools will be able to use curriculum and materials that will be available online. They can do activities in the parks, and they can do the same kind of activities in their own communities. They can get their hands dirty and do a little science themselves to get excited about it, and sometimes the data they gather as part of these experiments will become part of larger repositories of information that are used for ongoing research.
The money David gave is substantially funding a pilot of this at Acadia National Park. There is a team working on designing exactly what that looks like now. There will be research fellowships. Those fellows will be connected with future educator ambassadors to develop curriculum based on the research and disseminate the curriculum to students and also online. We’re also talking about a $10-20 million effort to sustain the work in Acadia and expand nationally.
Q: How can AAAS members who aren’t in a position to make a million-dollar donation play a role here?
Staiano: Philanthropy at all levels puts AAAS in a strong position to be a leader in speaking up for science. We can’t get grants to fund something we don’t know will happen. We have to rely on flexible funding.
Members’ gifts give us the ability to run to the action when challenges arise, or when we need to make sure policymakers understand the science that lies underneath a big policy issue, or to be able to speak out when the president-elect is making appointments to say, “Make sure you don’t forget the science.”
Those are things you can’t plan in advance, and you can’t budget for. That’s why the Flexible Action Fund—and that’s where the bulk of the giving from most members goes—is so critically important. It’s not just for policy—it’s for our education work or science diplomacy or human rights, when we have a new idea brewing when we’re not ready to seek a big grant for it but we need to put some staff time or resources into developing an idea. Philanthropy helps us to be innovative and responsive.