FACILITATING RESEARCH FUNDING. As head of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, Agneta Holmäng has worked resolutely to make it easier for private foundations to donate funds to the institute’s research programs. She is convinced that by taking a number of relatively simple measures, both the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish state could increase the incentive to make private donations.
Agneta Holmäng’s track record as a facilitator of private donations is second to none. During her years serving as the institute’s head, it has received a total of approximately SEK 90 million – funding that has been used to both establish a research center and to finance major research projects, as well as to pay for visiting professorships and educational programs.
The Gothenburg Center for Spinal Cord Injuries is the most recent example of how such donations can directly benefit both the university and the community. Its establishment is being funded by a generous donation from the Sten A Olsson Foundation for Research and Culture. The foundation is a family affair, and was founded in honor of the shipbuilder Sten A Olsson on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It has now been promoting research and culture in western Sweden for over 20 years. The foundation is currently headed by Sten A Olsson’s daughter, Madeleine Olsson Eriksson, who is its chairwoman.
Agneta Holmäng admires the “Stena” Foundation’s strong personal commitment to encouraging advancements in the fields of medicine and health. Equally impressive is the family’s depth of knowledge and insight in these areas; indeed, many family members are also trained physicians.
“The family has first-hand experience with spinal cord injuries, and Madeleine told me about the problems she had seen with health complications that were frequently caused by a lack of knowledge. There’s also disagreement among many healthcare professionals as to how best to care for people with these kinds of injuries. She asked me if there was anyone here at the institute who could deal with this problem,” recounts Agneta Holmäng.
Together with Katharina Stibrant Sunnerhagen, a professor of rehabilitation medicine and a few other colleagues, Agneta Holmäng wrote an application to the Stena Foundation. Their efforts were rewarded with a donation of approximately SEK 34 million. The establishment of the Gothenburg Center for Spinal Cord Injuries is now underway at Högsbo Hospital. Above all, the center will be a destination for education and development; its aim is to enable people affected by spinal cord injuries to live independently, and on their own terms. Another goal of the Gothenburg Center for Spinal Cord Injuries is to become an internationally respected institution, and a national leader in its field.
Carefully monitored results
It’s not the first time that the Sten A Olsson Foundation for Research and Culture provides funding for a new center at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology. The Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Center was founded in a similar manner; for personal reasons, the family wanted to increase awareness and knowledge about neuropsychiatric disorders in children. As with the Gothenburg Center for Spinal Cord Injuries, the donation to the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Center included funding for a professorship, the Birgit Olsson professorship. The position was named after Sten A Olsson’s wife, whose bequest made possible this investment in neuropsychiatric research.
“Over the years, the foundation has closely monitored the activities of Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Center, which has proven to be a great success. This interest and follow-through illustrates the Olsson family’s active involvement in the research undertakings their foundation chooses to fund. It has also laid the groundwork for a great relationship between the representatives of Sahlgrenska Academy and the family,” continues Agneta Holmäng.
She believes that building relationships with the community is a key factor to courting donations. On one hand, such relationships can increase the number of donations. When funding is granted, donors’ interest in the faculty’s activities and undertakings can also be of great value:
“Every year, we invite all the foundations and businesses that have donated funds to a meeting. There, our researchers present the results of their studies and projects, and our donors get the opportunity to provide valuable input, and to understand exactly how their money is being used. Because our donors are often very well versed in the subject matter, these meetings can be highly productive, and benefit our researchers. I consider this a prime example of the university really making the most of its collaborative opportunities.”
On Madeleine Olsson Eriksson’s initiative, the Stena Foundation has also invested large sums in funding scholarships for master’s students who want to go abroad to work on their thesis projects. The scholarships are available to qualified students from various parts of the university, and are awarded by a foundation-appointed scholarship committee.
Rethinking the donation process
Agneta Holmäng is convinced that there is great interest among private persons and companies in donating funds to research, and that such donations would become more common if the university and the Swedish state could offer friendlier conditions to potential donors. For example, the university requires even private donors to pay for the overhead costs associated with making a charitable gift. Agneta Holmäng thinks this is very wrong-headed:
“We have to emphasize to our donors that a quarter, or sometimes even more, of their donation, can’t go toward the research for which their funding is earmarked, but instead has to go to paying for existing administrative needs and the like. In terms of dealing with the paperwork, the cost of handling a donation is roughly the same regardless of its size – it doesn’t matter if it’s for SEK 30 million, or for 3 million. That’s why I think we should be able to reduce the overhead costs posed to donors, so that they only cover administrative expenses.”
She also believes that all donations should be subject to the same co-funding opportunities, no matter where the money comes from.
“For example, the university co-funds grants from the Wallenberg Foundation, which exempts these donations from our overhead rules. But it doesn’t do so when it comes to donations from regional foundations such as Stena. The university should rethink that.”
Agneta Holmäng received her medical degree from the Karolinska Institute in 1985, and as an alumna of that institution, she herself receives many requests to donate money to research. She believes that Sahlgrenska Academy alumni, and those of the University of Gothenburg, are another relatively untapped source of research funding.
The example set by the Karolinska Institute also shows just how important well-organized fundraising can be to a school. That institution’s fundraising efforts have generated billions of Swedish crowns in research funding, which among other things has been used to recruit successful researchers from other Swedish universities.
“We have to get better at this if we want to have any chance of competing,” stresses Agneta Holmäng.
The will to donate is growing
Among large corporations and wealthy individuals, there is currently a strong global trend toward donating large sums of money to research and development projects. Perhaps the most famous examples of this tendency are Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, but H&M’s Stefan Persson and the Kamprad family have also given large sums to universities and charitable causes.
The increased willingness to donate is also evidenced by the success of various Swedish research financiers. Agneta Holmäng is herself the chairwoman of the drafting committee and a board member of the SSMF (the Swedish Society for Medical Research), which is a major source of funds for younger researchers.
“The organization was founded almost 100 years ago, with an initial endowment of today’s equivalent of just SEK 4 million. Thanks mostly to generous donations, the society now has about SEK 2 billion in capital, and can distribute about SEK 80 million annually,” states Agneta Holmäng.
The list of the donations that Agneta Holmäng helped to negotiate (or for which she served as a liaison) is extensive, but it is important to note that in most cases it is the researchers and organizations themselves that actually apply for the funding, and who stand to benefit from it. Here are some specific examples of undertakings, the funds for which were in part provided by donations facilitated by Agneta Holmäng:
- The Gothenburg Center for Spinal Cord Injuries
- The Gillberg Neuropsychiatric Center
- CELAM – The Center for Ethics, Law and Mental Health
- AMBLE – The Area for Mind, Brain, Learning and Environment
- Visiting professorships in Transplant Immunology and Neurological Rehabilitation
- Services in the fields of audiology, forensic psychiatry, forensic psychology, and sports physiology
TEXT: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN