By Richard Berks, freelance science writer for charities

Published: 6 August 2021

As well as doing life-changing research, many of the scientists your charity funds are also keen to get involved in other parts of your charity’s work, including communications and fundraising. Their contributions mean you can talk more about research, and tell better stories. So, for Comms and Fundraising staff in your charity, building good relationships with researchers can be mutually beneficial.

I recently spoke to three experts from AMRC member charities about how (and why) they build good relationships with the researchers they fund. They are:

  • Rachel Kahn, Research Communications Manager at Blood Cancer UK.
  • Dr Maria Tennant, Head of Communications at Kidney Research UK.
  • Dr Leanne Grech, Senior Research Engagement Officer at British Heart Foundation.

Here, I summarise their thoughts and top tips for building good relationships with researchers.

Why is building good relationships with your researchers important for your charity?

  • Bring your charity’s supporters closer to the research. “I think it’s easy to slip into a role where charities can be ‘gatekeepers’ of their researchers, where actually it’s important for researchers to speak directly to people affected by the work they’re doing, and vice versa”, Rachel says.
  • Keep your charity front of their mind, so they keep you updated on their work. “Having some kind of engagement reminds them that you exist – even if it’s just to drop them a note and say hi every now and again,” says Maria.
  • Helps to raise more money for research. “Featuring their research in a press release picked up by top media outlets, or an event series viewed by thousands, means more exposure of their work and more support to the cause from the general public,” says Leanne.
  • Helps work at a short notice. Maria explains: “For example, if we get media enquiries about particular areas, we can pick up the phone to a researcher and say, ‘We've had a query about this, can you help us?’. If they've met us, they know who we are, and it's then much easier.”
  • Finding out what makes them tick makes for better stories. “There's often an element of the story that comes out that makes it more human,” says Maria. “You can get stuff that you wouldn't get from reading their papers.”

Top tips for building good relationships

  • Start as early as possible in the grant application process – learn a bit about their research before you make the first approach. “Also, if the researcher is on those committees, we see them talk and get a sense of how good they are at communicating,” says Maria.
  • Start small – don’t start with a huge demand for their time. Ask for a photo, or a quick quote about what their research means to them.
  • Remind them why it’s important – show researchers examples of your work, and explain how the scientists were involved. It helps them understand what you might be asking from them in the future, and why.
  • Follow and interact with your researchers on social media. Rachel celebrates with Blood Cancer UK’s researchers on Twitter when they announce a new paper has been published. “It’s just a gentle reminder I’m there!”, she says.
  • Meet in person (pandemic-permitting). The face-to-face interaction is important, but you also get to see them in their ‘natural environment’, and get a flavour of what a lab tour might be like.
  • Provide different ways to interact with them. Leanne explains that at the British Heart Foundation, they have a researcher noticeboard, a monthly newsletter, a membership programme, and social media accounts specifically aimed at researchers and other professionals.
  • Work around their schedules, not the other way round. “We appreciate and recognise that researchers often have a lot going on, so we try our best to not overburden them,” Leanne says.
  • Try and make the interaction informal – make yourself accessible, speak to researchers without an agenda, allow time for chit-chat rather than just rushing into business.
  • Make the time for building relationships. “I know it's hard when you're up against it with lots of other deadlines, but in the long run it will really pay off,” says Maria. “It's easier to do that now we know you don't have to physically go to meet people – you can talk on Zoom with a group of researchers quite easily.”
  • Build a personal relationship as well as a professional one. “Find out what makes them tick outside of research, find common ground – they are more likely to remember you for a start,” says Rachel. “If you want to create a real relationship, you’re going to have to reveal parts of yourself and your life too – a relationship works both ways.”
  • Give as well as take. Know and share how you can help them, as well as how they can help you.
  • Value their input. “Do not treat researchers like they are a means to an end – value their contribution,” says Leanne. “Due to their line of work, they have incredibly powerful stories to tell.”

Thanks to Rachel, Maria, and Leanne for their time and expertise. You can read more of their advice on researcher engagement and examples of their successes here: