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Ignite Meaningful Conversations about Giving

Jolene Francis, CFRE
Published:  12/20/2017

Getting to the heart of the matter with donors isn’t always easy. Building a long-term donor relationship requires us to get human with folks. Don’t be afraid to let your walls down, get personal and be vulnerable.

After a 28-year career in the financial services industry, I came to my position as Foundation Director for our community owned and governed, 298-bed acute care hospital confident that I had all the tools and skills I needed to be a successful fundraiser. With years of professional sales training and the ability to identify needs, I thought I was ready to tackle the world of non-profit fundraising.

It did not take very long for me to discover I was using the wrong organ in conversations with donors. I was wired to use the logical parts of my brain that had been trained to close a deal. Needless to say, my success was lukewarm at best.

Why was my message falling flat? I benefit from a long history in the business community, I know how to guide decision-making conversations, and as a banker, I had helped hundreds of individual dreams come true.

The answer came over coffee with a well-established major donor, Kris, a woman I had known only a few months since taking the position.

Kris listened to me drone on about the economic impact Enloe Medical Center supported in our northern California region through the jobs we created and the thousands of people we employed. She patiently listened to my spiel about the need to keep our hospital independent to ensure care decisions continued to be made with local governance. After a bit, her eyes started to glaze over.

When I finally stopped talking, she looked at me and asked “Why do you give to the hospital?”
I quickly replied, “Because of all the reasons I just outlined, and because it’s the right thing to do.”

“That’s your head talking,” she said. “I want to know what your heart is telling you.”

This question caught me off my guard. In my entire career, I couldn’t recall being asked what my heart was telling me. As I thought about that conversation later, I began to understand. What she was really asking me was what matters to me. She wanted to know why I care about the hospital, not from a business perspective but from a human perspective. She was asking me about my story.

Your own story can be impactful

My history with our local hospital is long. It began the day I was born there, three-and-a-half years after my future husband had been born there. My sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews also started their own stories at our hospital. One of our children was born there. So, I’ve got some history with the place.

After my conversation with Kris, I was empowered to draw upon my experiences to share, from my heart, what I loved about our hospital. Some of those encounters were happy, some were sad. But each and every one of them was deeply meaningful.

The opportunity to share my own story presents itself from time to time, but not in every circumstance. Sometimes it can be helpful as a way to kick-start a conversation that has stalled. Sometimes, it is just the natural progression of getting to know someone personally, opening your hearts to each other and sharing those things you each value.

I have also been surprised by the positive responses I receive when I do share my story. In these moments I become more than just an employee with an elevator speech. I am a woman with a family, experiencing the delights and the tragedies of life. I can relate to the joys and the fears that touch each of us throughout our journeys.

As you grow more comfortable weaving your story into conversations with donors, you will realize that your work has crossed over a line. No longer will this work be simply your career; it will became your calling. At this point, your work begins to bring a deeper meaning to your life, expanding the level of joy you experience as the conduit between patient need and supporter’s generosity.

Sharing in each other’s stories will break down the walls created in a business environment and provide space in which our shared interests as human beings can come to life. In this space we are privileged to learn and understand our donors’ desires to help create a better world.

Don’t have your own story? Grab someone’s and use it well.

Admittedly, I am fortunate to have been the recipient of care at our hospital and experienced meaningful moments there.

If you don’t have that experience, sharing the stories of patients and their families can have as big an impact as sharing your own story. At Enloe Medical Center, we gather testimonies as Stories of Excellence, shared by patients, family members and caregivers who witness extraordinary kindness coupled with outstanding patient-centered care. These stories are collected, recorded and published (while preserving patient privacy.)

The stories vary widely: a donor who funded ‘Surgery Buddy’ stuffed animals for pediatric patients; wedding ceremonies that hospital caregivers plan and perform in patient rooms; emergency room nurses who donate the Christmas gifts they purchased for their own families to help a young mother who lost everything a fire; or a Lift Team crew who came in on their day off to move a terminal patient to the rooftop helipad so he could feel the wind on his face and experience one last sunrise.

At Enloe Medical Center, we have built an entire culture around these stories. We begin every Board and Department Leadership meeting by verbally sharing stories of excellence. Dozens of written stories are submitted to the Human Resources department quarterly, where all identifying information are redacted, then circulated among senior leaders who vote for their favorite story of the quarter. The top six stories are selected for quarterly recognition by the CEO, including a beautifully crafted rendering of the story suitable for framing, presented with cake served by senior leaders.

The formalized method of recognizing extraordinary patient care reinforces our commitment to putting patients and their families first. It also provides our development staff with endless examples of how our donors impact the lives of patients across our region.

This strategic shift in messaging quickly impacted total fundraising, which reflected a remarkable 283% increase from the previous year. Additionally, incorporating business strategies that aligned cost structure with our new donor stewardship activities brought significant improvement in ROI, which grew from 1.15 to 4.81 during the same period of time.

What matters most to you?

This simple question will grant insight into what motivates your donors to give. It is the perfect place to begin when building a new relationship. There will always be a need for us to engage our logical, analytical, calculating brains in our work. But equally important is our ability to quiet our logical thoughts, open our hearts and engage deeply in the human interaction that drives successful healthcare philanthropy.

Jolene Francis, CFRE is the Director of Advancement & Communications at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California.

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Meet The Author

Jolene Francis, CFRE

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