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Funders Forum

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund

January 2012

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities. The Foundation Center asked Dr. John E. Burris, the fund's president, about factors that have contributed to the fund's recent successes:

Question What are some of the best practices you have employed that have enabled the Fund to meet its objectives?

AnswerA few strategies that have been most helpful are:

Careful planning. Before we go into any new program area, we invest significant time and resources upfront and bring in experts to advise us so that we're making our decision with the best information available and creating a framework for likely success. Once we make the decision to move forward in a given area, we tend to be steadfast in our support until necessary momentum is built or a critical mass of other funders join to seed an under-resourced issue area.

An interdisciplinary approach. We've found that great things can happen at the intersections of disciplines. For just over a decade, we've been supporting individual scientists through our Career Awards at the Scientific Interfaces program, through which non-biological scientists like physicists are tackling biomedical and medical research challenges. We've seen a growing interest in this area from other funders, including other private foundations, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

A comprehensive reach and ongoing assessment. Over the past 15 years, we've invested about $22 million in afterschool programs at primary and secondary public schools throughout North Carolina — many of which are economically disadvantaged areas — through our Student Science Enrichment Program. Since 1996, we've reached 35,000 students in all 100 counties of North Carolina. We've consistently found through our ongoing "before-and-after" assessments that kids are much more enthusiastic about and interested in science and math after participating in the program than they were before.

Interactions with other funders. During the economic downturn, it's often been observed that it's easier to be effective if multiple groups pool their funds or ideas. We've found it important to be nimble and open to these opportunities, and are engaged in a variety of formal and informal collaborative relationships with organizations such as the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the March of Dimes Foundation, and the Health Research Alliance. Having our staff out in the field, interacting with others who share similar interests positions, has enabled the fund to be receptive to new partnerships when we determine them to be the right fit for our work. The intelligence we gather in our fieldwork also helps to inform and put in context our planning efforts.

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