When a medical institution needs to build a new wing or start a new research project, its officials can turn to a wide range of grantmakers for financial support. Finding funds for general operating expenses, on the other hand, can be very difficult. Most granting agencies will not provide monies for the expensive supplies, equipment, and staff required for day-to-day operations.

According to the Foundation Grants Index, issued by the New York-based Foundation Center, general operating support constituted only 11.3 percent of total grant dollars in 1989, versus 46.6 percent for program support.

An agency that's bucking this trend, however, is the New York-based Helena Rubinstein Foundation, one of the few private philanthropies willing to provide general funds to help fill in the cracks between projects, smoothing over those financial rough spots with support that is more than just cosmetic.

General operating support "is absolutely the hardest [kind of funding]...

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