'People, Not Projects': Inside HHMI's Decision-Making Process

Some funders hover. They give you their money and want to know all the specifics — what exactly you're going to do with it, with whom, and for what purpose. They're the philanthropic equivalent of clingy parents, ensuring you don't stay out a minute past curfew and requesting text message check-ins every half hour. It makes sense, really. They've been generous, and now they want to know all the details. They paid for you to go off and do a very specific thing with their money, and they want to know how you're coming along.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is in many ways the opposite of this stereotype. For starters, HHMI's whole organizational model is built around the mantra "People, Not Projects," which is a clever way of saying the institute is looking to back brilliant scientists who are apt to continue doing brilliant things throughout their careers — rather than backing only a specific project or initiative that a scientist is undertaking. By allowing grantees the freedom to "follow their instincts," HHMI gives them not only the stability to take risks but also a big vote of confidence. It hands over the money and stands clear. (See HHMI: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.)

For HHMI, this approach is about making contributions not just toward scientific breakthroughs but also toward fostering a scientific community that thrives on creativity, innovation, and interconnectedness. (Read HHMI President Robert Tjian's IP profile.) Just look at HHMI's big Science Education initiatives to get a better understanding of the institute's investment in science as a way of life and learning, not simply a tool.

Really, it makes sense. Sure, picky funders that support specific little projects might help find a breakthrough cure for cancer. But if there's no vibrant community of scientists surrounding it, it'll essentially be a cure in a vacuum. And what good is that? HHMI wants to achieve the ideal of scientific "thought leaders" all working and sharing within a larger community. And if you want the institute's money, I bet they want to see that you believe in this model of scientific pursuit, too.