Welcome: Joana Witkowski

New head of Office of Resource Development at EMBL, Joana WItkowski, stands inside the ATC building at EMBL Heidelberg
Joana Witkowski is the new head of EMBL’s Office of Resource Development. PHOTO: Massimo Del Prete/EMBL

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New head of ORD will build and expand the partnerships that help EMBL achieve its ambitions

During her career, Joana Witkowski has worked as a fundraiser for organisations such as the Royal Academy of Music and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in London. Now, the native Heidelberger has returned to her hometown to lead the Office of Resource Development (ORD) at EMBL.

What role does ORD play at EMBL?

Our role is to partner with individual philanthropists, trusts, foundations and corporations to generate support for key EMBL projects where it’s really needed. We build bridges with as many people as possible, to excite them about our work and see where we can work together towards a common goal. It’s about creating and maintaining relationships with people and organisations who can help financially, of course, but also become real partners in many other ways, whether it’s sharing their expertise or providing access to their networks. The most powerful philanthropy comes from long-lasting, strategic partnerships that help realise big ideas that benefit society.

Fundraising is such a team sport and the ORD team is brilliant. But the teamwork also extends beyond us. Donors want to meet and build relationships with the amazing scientists and other EMBL staff who work in the areas they feel passionate about. These relationships increase their investment in EMBL as a whole. Our external Development Board also opens many doors for us and are very generous with their time and advice.

What do you do day-to-day as the head of ORD?

The role at EMBL is, in some ways, more hands-on than some of my previous roles, as EMBL’s fundraising function is still relatively new compared to the organisations I worked for in Britain. What I really like is that I will have a lot of contact with current and prospective donors. I really want to be out on the road and to meet as many people as possible. I want to let them know about EMBL and how we could work together.

Another very important aspect is engaging the EMBL community. I’m very keen to work with EMBL’s new Director General, Edith Heard, and as many internal stakeholders as possible to flesh out the role philanthropy could – and should – play at EMBL in the future. Once we all know what we would like to achieve through fundraising, it’s so important that the EMBL community – including all the different sites of course – are on board and see how they can benefit from private support and understand the role they can play in fundraising.

Finally, as head of ORD, I need to make sure we have the systems and processes in place to do our work at the highest level. From finding potential new donors and bringing them closer to us, to ensuring that those who already give can see the impact of their support and become more and more enthused about EMBL.

How can staff members help ORD?

There are so many ways! One of them is helping us explain what private support can achieve and tell ‘the EMBL story’ in the most compelling way to the widest possible audience. Staff can also help us identify and engage with potential donors, who could be people or organisations they already know. If we unlocked the power of the EMBL community, we could probably find a connection to all of the world’s major philanthropists!

When I told my colleagues at the BHF about the opportunity here, every single scientist was familiar with EMBL, but the general public doesn’t know so much about us. So, I think the outreach element is very important. If we’re better known, people might come our way and self-solicit as supporters. 

Who are you interested in partnering with?

You have to start where you have existing relationships and the most to show. In the past few years, the Office of Resource Development has been very much working with local philanthropists. We have strong local relationships and there is so much more we can still do here in the Rhine-Neckar region and more widely in Germany. It made a lot of sense to try things out here and create systems and structures which work really well and can be expanded later. We’re now starting to be ready to think more internationally: this is a big priority for us going forward. The EMBL sites are an obvious way to go but we should also think about global philanthropists.

What attracted you to the role at EMBL? Have you worked in a scientific environment before?

I grew up in Heidelberg but I never knew EMBL existed! I had an interest in science but I didn’t study it. I had been working in the UK for many years when a recruitment consultant contacted me about the EMBL job. At the time I was working for the BHF raising funds for medical research so I did have experience in an applied scientific field. The more I read about EMBL the more I thought, “Wow, this sounds really interesting!” Then I came for my interview and I just completely fell in love. I know so many people say that, but it really is great when you’re here as a non-scientist and you see people really take the time to answer your questions.

Which of the current fundraising projects are you particularly interested in?

Something that’s going to be very important to us is the Visitor Experience in the new EMBL Imaging Centre (see info box below). That requires a big fundraising project and we’re working on getting our case for support ready for that. I think this is a great project for the general public, to help inform them about all these very important questions in molecular biology. To have this space for all kinds of levels of knowledge is super exciting!

Then there are other projects like the Friends of EMBL raising money this year to fund projects that support and advance women in science, which I think is a really important thing for us to do. We’re also keen to continue to grow our Corporate Partnership Programme, and are thinking of introducing a legacy giving programme.

Going forward, we need to think about how we tie the different projects into an overarching narrative for the fundraising campaign that we’re keen to run around EMBL’s 50th anniversary. I think that’s where our biggest opportunities lie.

What is the EMBL Imaging Centre?

The German state and federal governments have agreed on funding for a high-resolution microscopy centre at EMBL’s Heidelberg site. The new centre for light and electron microscopy will allow EMBL scientists, industry partners and up to 300 visiting scientists annually to access the latest technologies well before they become commercially available.

To facilitate this, EMBL is cooperating with HeidelbergCement – who will generously provide the centre’s building materials – and leading microscopy companies. Thermo Fisher Scientific, Leica and ZEISS will contribute a total sum of €10 million to the project. The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation will donate €5 million towards training scientists to work with these high-end technologies, and for the general operation of the new centre.

The centre will also host a permanent Visitor Experience for which funding is currently being sought. The purpose of this exhibition will be to open EMBL and its research to the public.

What inspires you?

I’m really inspired by the scientists here, and when I was at the Royal Academy I was inspired by the musicians. These people are just so incredible and such a privilege to work with. When you get a donor in a room with a scientist or a musician, it’s great to see sparks fly and know that you made it possible. It’s an incredible environment to be a part of.

What are your interests outside work?

I have two young kids at the moment so that limits my hobbies! I’m trying to see Heidelberg with new eyes. In the past I’ve always moved to completely new places – Paris, Grenoble, London – and now I’m coming back to somewhere I lived before, and I really want to discover new things in the region. I also enjoy pottery and playing the accordion. I came into fundraising via a love of the arts, being able to support something I love. I still love the arts very much, whether practising myself or just being close to art and culture!