Giving History is Repeating Itself––Again
In early March 2020, as COVID-19 descended upon the United States, the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation in Illinois took the lessons learned from past national crises and made significant, “on the fly” changes in outreach to our family of established and new prospect donors. Within 48 hours, we were reassuring our family base and raising support at the highest pledge and average giving levels. This is our story.
As executive director of the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation, I have watched our remarkable team of physicians, nurses, and staff for over 15 years. I have never seen anything like the threat of COVID-19 to our community hospital. What I call the Elmhurst “difference” was hard at work for those who depend on us. The hospital was triaging, testing, and treating patients concerned they had the virus as “positive” cases were being identified every day. Everyone was working around the clock to prepare for a significant increase in COVID cases, and establishing best practices for patients, nurses, physicians, and hospital staff.
Elmhurst, Illinois is a small picturesque city tucked minutes away from Chicago. Founded over 110 years ago, the close-knit community of Elmhurst is known for their strong emphasis on quality of life, with generations returning to settle down and raise families over decades. Founded in 1926, Elmhurst Memorial Hospital is the top employer in the city. A replacement hospital was constructed in 2011 as an 866,000 square-foot, 255 bed, state-of-the-art acute care facility offering high-quality integrated healthcare including a high-tech emergency services department. Founded in 1980, the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation plays an integral role in supporting the hospital and its programs.
On March 11, 2020, we announced we were caring for our first patient who tested positive for COVID-19. We knew the hospital would quickly experience a tremendous increase in demand for services and our projections showed that needs would continue to grow, especially for our emergency room and observation unit. During this time, we were actively raising funds to complete the construction of the observation unit, which will add six additional rooms at a cost of $1.6 million. A key component of our Annual Fund is the Foundation’s onsite Patient Outreach Calling Program. Annually, we solicit about 17,000 recent patients, confirming the quality of the care provided and seeking their support. As luck would have it, the Annual Fund case already included the construction of the observation unit.
The clock was ticking. As more patients arrived at our emergency room with symptoms of the virus and testing positive, we knew our days working from the Foundation’s offices in the hospital were numbered. In preparation for vacating the hospital and working from home we held a virtual meeting with our long-term partner, Gregg Carlson, President of Carlson Fundraising, LLC and former Chair of Giving USA Foundation to discuss how to adjust our fundraising strategies.
Nearly immediately, I was being questioned by well-meaning leadership about the appropriateness of continuing to reach out to the community for philanthropic support at this time. However, as a professional fundraiser, I have experienced three national “challenges” with corresponding periods of severe economic stress: the bursting of the dot-com bubble (2001-2002), the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, and the Great Recession (2007-2009).
Together with Carlson, we analyzed each of these periods, along with the Stock Market Crash of 1987, and determined that there was a decline in giving resulting from these corresponding economic hardships. That said, analysis of these times showed there is a right way and a wrong way for non-profit organizations to manage these difficult periods and come out stronger on the other side.
During our research dive into fundraising during past national crises, we discovered certain types of giving are substantially hurt where other types tend to thrive. Giving (major donor, corporate, and foundation) most strongly correlated to the rise and fall of the stock market decline. However, individual giving as a percent of a person’s income remained relatively stable. With face-to-face fundraising temporarily gone, we needed to pivot from traditional efforts like events and face-to-face major donor networking, and lean into means such as phone, mail ,and digital.
Within the next few days, we would implement the following three lessons learned from past national crises into our fundraising initiatives for the expansion of our observation unit:
Lesson 1: Stay Calm and Carry On
The inclination is to “circle the wagons,” and cut programs and fundraising to conserve resources. While money needs to be “spent smarter,” the organizations that stayed the course in difficult times continued to raise funds, certainly more so than those that had pulled back. Just as important, those that put campaigns on hiatus were among the last to experience the uptick when it did bounce back, which came faster than predicted. Donors want to continue to hear from you, especially if the economic strain is impacting your organization. Further, your donors must be thanked for supporting you.
Lesson 2: Ask for What You Need
Your organization’s mission has not changed, and those you serve have not gone away. In fact, the strain may have increased for those you serve as a result of the crisis (as it has for nearly all hospitals). You have the right and the responsibility to be sharing with your community and donors what is needed to meet your objectives.
Lesson 3: Giving is Healing
We have all experienced that “giving makes you feel good.” Now we have medical studies showing that giving is truly healing, with the act of giving triggering the dopamine center of the brain. All who sincerely ask for support of their organization are giving their donor base the opportunity to heal through giving.
By March 21, 2020, as the state of Illinois was ordered to stay-at-home, we had adjusted our fundraising initiatives to incorporate the three lessons learned and began training our fundraising team on our revised plan. We created a personalized letter requesting donations to support Elmhurst Memorial Hospital’s mission: advancing the health of our communities. As an unrestricted gift, funds received could be put towards the critical expansion project.
Initially, this appeal was mailed to 1,500 recent patients. The letter incorporated the following three messages:
Key Message 1: Our Plan
We listed the hospital’s swift and comprehensive response to the pandemic. and that within the next few days the recipient would receive a call from a member of the Foundation to discuss what the hospital was doing to combat the virus.
Key Message 2: Our Ask
Our campaign to raise $1.6 million for the new observation unit was more important now than ever. The hospital’s family has been responding to their community’s needs for more than 90 years. Now, with their help the hospital can continue to deliver the highest quality and most compassionate care. With these thoughts in mind, we asked the recipient to consider a quarterly pledge of $50 over the next three years, for a total gift of $600 to support the hospital’s mission. And remember, these were patient non-donor prospects.
Key Message 3: Thank You
Every recipient was thanked for their thoughtful consideration of our request for funding and to join us as we ensured Elmhurst Memorial Hospital stays on course in providing safe, seamless, and personal care for our patients.
The week of March 16, 2020, the same week our letter requesting funding was mailed, the Foundation’s offices had to vacate. Our fundraising office and staff joined millions across the U.S. transitioning to working from home. Due to adjusting our fundraising initiatives from the onset of the pandemic, and with our Patient Outreach Calling Program software already using cloud based Software as a Service (SaaS), we were successfully up and running and implementing our revised strategies within 48 hours.
Our callers had access to communications with our 1,500 new prospects. Using laptops the team was able to securely pull up their prospects, make telephone calls through a line appearing as Elmhurst Memorial Hospital on caller ID, secure donations, and make notes needed for thank you cards and follow-ups.
Each Caller was trained with a revised script asking them to reach out with a call, at my request, for three reasons:
Script Message 1: Ask "Are you OK?"
First and foremost, the hospital wants to be sure the recipient and those in their home are safe and healthy.
If the individual responded “yes” and all those in their home are OK, the caller would express how they were glad to hear that, and introduce the second reason for their call.
But if the individual responded "no," the caller was trained to communicate that the recipient should call their doctor and see what they recommend, give the recipient the contact information for the County Public Health Hotline, and the hospital’s hotline and website. Always, the caller thanked them for their time and communicated best wishes, and the call was ended.
Script Message 2: Share Information
The caller would then share with the recipient the top three things the hospital is doing to combat the pandemic:
- Triaging, testing, and treating patients who may have the virus
- Working around the clock to prepare for an increase in cases
- Establishing best practices for patient care and caregiver protection
The caller engaged the recipient in conversation by asking, “Do these seem like the right action steps to you?” The caller would also shared the needs of the hospital that have intensified and asked, “How do you feel about our plan to add capacity to meet the needs of your community?”
Script Message 3: Make the Full Ask
The caller would then ask for the Foundation’s suggested amount of a quarterly pledge of $50 over the next three years, for a total gift of $600.
The results were remarkable. With a trained team of four part-time callers working four hours a day for four days a week, we averaged over 150 prospect calls per week and succeeded in over 1,650 successful conversations, resulting in over 165 new gifts at an average of $285 to date and nearly $50,000 dollars in total––and counting!
We set out with a goal of a 7 percent pledge rate, and are hitting 9 percent, proving the success of the three lessons learned and the notion that our community wanted to connect with us and felt activated to help financially, rather than watch from the sidelines.
We are now six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing over 200,000 deaths from the virus nationally. Elmhurst Memorial Hospital has treated 552 patients with COVID-19 and, unfortunately, 90 have passed away. Importantly, the hospital has successfully discharged 396 who are in various states of recovery. Since March, the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation has made 3,850 calls with 412 donors pledging nearly $110,000 with an average gift of $260 from patient non-donors in support of our mission.
Communities across the globe changed overnight, and reminded the world that hospitals serve as the safety net for all people. COVID-19 continues to place a heavy financial burden on hospitals. Hospital Foundations should consider changing their traditional fundraising strategies to align with the three lessons learned: 1) Stay Calm and Carry On, 2) Ask for What You Need, and remember that 3) Giving is Healing.
Like most of healthcare and their Foundations, Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, and the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation will be under stress in the months and years to come. By learning from what history has told us, we will get through this together.
"The Science of Charity." Lehrer, Jonah. WIRED, December 10, 2010.
"City of Elmhurst Comprehensive Annual Financial Report." December 31, 2018.
"Coronavirus and Economic Challenges: What History Tells Us and Steps Forward." Moore. March 17, 2020.
"Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018." Researched and written by IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.