A donor called. “Cancer,” he said from his post-exam waiting room. “Will you come to talk to me for a few minutes?”, the donor asked. I ran out of my office thinking “How should I act? What should I say?”
I have been raising money in the healthcare context for the last ten years. The dream of helping people live out their lives to the fullest extent possible, overcoming the obstacles that disease, disability, and life throw at you…it is hard to imagine anything more tangible or more inspiring. In my role as a fundraiser at San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, I get the opportunity to support healthcare professionals delivering care in many situations: from Trauma where life and death are on the line, to Social Medicine where homeless patients get help far beyond medical interventions, to the Birth Center where wonderful healthy babies are born HIV free to HIV positive parents thanks to the dedicated work of a vast network of social workers, case managers, and many others.
My experience fundraising in healthcare follows the same patterns and best practices of fundraising in any setting, but there are some challenges unique to healthcare fundraising that make best practices even more critical. In this article, I hope to share a few differences which I have observed over the years.
Fundraisers know that building relationships with donors toward meaningful engagements is at the core of success in the field. As we work closely with a donor over time, the fundraising professional and the donor craft as perfect a match as possible between the donors’ goals and organizations’ goals. The final result is a great gift with known expectations, clear goals, and a deep appreciation for why the gift is important to the organization and donor on multiple levels.
However, a fundraiser in a healthcare setting sometimes finds him, or herself suddenly dropped into a situation demanding speed but also delicacy, intimacy and without a pre-existing relationship. And, because we are sometimes talking about difficult medical situations, donors can be extraordinarily vulnerable at that moment, which leaves the fundraising professional navigating a potentially transactive business situation while experiencing a lopsided power dynamic favoring the fundraiser.
Remember that the donor I mentioned above for whom I was running out of my office to meet who had just received the cancer diagnosis? Neither of us knows what “meaningful” is to the other at that moment, nor has the donor had time to figure out what “meaningful” is to himself in that situation. This donor is seeking and needing to take real and urgent action. How in this situation can we as fundraisers do what naturally would take time, building up a relationship together where we can have a delicate and intimate conversation about things as deep as the meaning of life?
Always be closing?
Fundraisers in all settings don’t like to admit it, but we are under pressure. We need to serve our organization’s goals, but also keep the lights on, meet our fiscal needs each year, grow our careers, and we all have supervisors at some level attempting to quantify our progress in building relationships with donors. We, fundraisers, train to resist the urge of transactive philanthropy and look for opportunities to move our donor conversations into meaningful giving. Even if short-term pressure screams, “always be closing!” We know that if we slow down, and look to the long game – look to the story behind the giving – that our numbers will ultimately improve. Tapping into meaning with donors increases retention rates, secures larger gifts and connects donors deeply with the work happening at our organizations, which hopefully will far outlast our time at our institution.
In the healthcare setting, fundraisers feel the same unacknowledged pressure to close gifts, but we also find ourselves face-to-face with donors who wants to take action, while they are experiencing the emotional vulnerability of a medical diagnosis.
Breathe through your ears
When you take a class on mindfulness, the first thing they teach you is to breathe. We all know that fundraising is about listening, asking open-ended questions, and being fully present in the moment. I want to suggest you add breathing to your list of skills. From my own experience, remembering to pause and take a breath, puts that critical bit of distance between myself and the intensity of the situation at hand. There is so much happening for donors in these moments, taking a breath gives us a chance to remember our training. Key fundraising traits such as empathy, compassion, and enthusiasm are required at the bedside more than anywhere so that we are not just concerned with the donors’ philanthropy, but also about the donor as a human being.
Donor heal thyself
Another key differentiator of fundraising in healthcare is the role philanthropy plays with donors. Fundraisers tend to believe in philanthropy as a powerful tool for good that helps create a better world. Donations can provide direct support to those in need, can be used as a rallying symbol of a community’s priorities, prove concepts, initiate research, leverage bigger investments from public and private sources, etc. It is an amazing and versatile tool for good!
In the healthcare setting, all of this is true, and an additional factor that comes into play is how philanthropy can benefit donors psychologically and physiologically. Understanding giving as a possible source of healing for the donor is an important added factor. A fundraiser in healthcare needs to listen for the cues, but the “ah-ha” moment comes when you realize that a donor is seeking is to be a partner in their healing process. Too often patients experience medicine as dis-empowering, and they feel they are not in control. When donors are in the midst of a health crisis, they are frequently required to change their lives and lifestyles as a result of their care. Philanthropy can be a powerful action for a donor to take that signifies their commitment to healing and hope for a healthy future.
Paging Dr. Fundraiser, Code Donor
Embracing your role with the donor as part of their care team is an important difference for a fundraiser working in the healthcare setting to consider. It can feel like a bit of a leap to step beyond yourself as a transactive facilitator of donations, and into one where you truly believe in your role in facilitating the healing potential of giving. If you consider yourself part of the donor’s care team, it helps you set your priorities toward being donor-centric and helps you move your conversations toward meaning.
Other Issue to Note
On top of all the challenges discussed above, there might be one unique to university medical settings. Remember that donor who I was running over to meet? If he was an alumnus, most likely this donor has already been working with non-medical fundraisers at the same institution. Non-medical professional colleagues in the university fundraising ecosystem might have spent years working with this donor, carefully cultivating a relationship. It can be a challenge honoring a donors’ intentions from a medical philanthropy perspective while also honoring the work of your fundraising colleagues who advocate for a different aspect of the institution.
I’ve tried to describe some of the uniquely intense situations that sometimes happen to fundraisers in healthcare settings. Mostly, the work that fundraisers do in healthcare is the same day-to-day activity that we all know. It consists of dogged persistence and patience as we go about licking envelopes, carefully crafting emails, leveraging peer level volunteers, and leaving countless messages in the expectation of using our “higher level” skills.
Now, for the rest of the story.
As I rushed through the hospital, my mind was racing to generate comforting words for the donor. And then, I caught sight of the donor with his wife next to him. I took a breath and just reached out my hand in greeting — nothing magic, just quiet, calm, and open as we sat together.
A year or so later, I was able to share with the donor that the donation that he and his wife made helped fund a special set of tests that pointed toward an important therapeutic discovery. Now that was an easy call to make!
Jeremy Benjamin is the Sr. Director of Development at San Francisco General Hospital. He helps donors and patients discover the healing power of giving.