AHP Connect Articles

AHP Connect delivers updates on industry news and research, educational and professional opportunities, best practices and other articles related to health care philanthropy.

Creating a grateful patient major gifts program from scratch

Published:  06/12/2015

Originally published in the June 12, 2015 AHP Connect

The following article is based on an AHP webinar presented on April 15, 2015, by Thom Harmon, director of leadership gifts at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pa., an affiliate of the Temple University Health System and a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center.

There certainly is no shortage of articles and presentations about major gifts, physician engagement and grateful patients. Each topic is standard fare for those engaged in health care philanthropy. Thom Harmon’s April 2015 webinar adds value to these conversations by providing a case study on the steps a development office should take when attempting to combine these elements into a coherent and practical program.

For Harmon, physician engagement is the pivotal factor, which only can be achieved in the context of four principles:

  • Institutional buy-in. Executive leadership must buy in to the importance of the program up front. The same applies to the HIPAA compliance office, development directors and key physicians. Their support and involvement are crucial to establish credibility with the service line clinicians who will partner with development staff.
  • Data-driven metrics. To know what is working or needs improvement, it is important to decide what to measure, where to record data and how to use the information. For example, which physicians are partners in the program? Which potential donors are their patients? Were they referred to the development office by a physician or through wealth screening? In which service line were they a patient? What were the outcomes in terms of qualifications, initial visits, visits to ask and donations?
  • Starting small. Harmon recommends initially taking a pilot-program approach to get a grateful patient major gifts program established and accepted. He prefers to focus on one or two of the hospital’s service lines and a limited number of key physicians. A one- on-one approach facilitates educating clinicians about the importance and ethical legitimacy of philanthropic support. This can greatly ease the concerns physicians may have regarding privacy and the doctor-patient relationship, often turning skeptics into champions and allies.
  • Focus on service lines. Building trust with clinicians is vital. Major gift officers (MGOs) should focus on one or two service lines. The “embedded” MGO should become a subject matter expert (or at least a very well-informed layperson) in each one and concentrate on becoming accepted as a member of the team. In turn, the MGO can provide clinicians with valuable information about the resources philanthropy can provide and how to request and access donated funds they need for their service line.

Says Harmon: “We try to convey to physicians that philanthropy isn’t just about money. Patients and their families find a lot of meaning in giving back to the organization. It’s a way for them to show how grateful they are. It’s a way of finding a sort of catharsis.”

The process works best when physicians communicate with development staff about patients or families they believe may be interested in making a major gift—usually defined as a five figure, onetime donation or a similar multiyear pledge. Physicians are not expected to ask for donations. However, they may speak with or write to a patient to acknowledge interest in making a gift and to offer to introduce the patient to a colleague from the development staff (the embedded MGO).

Once the introduction is accepted, it’s up to the development officer to qualify the potential donor’s capacity and inclination to give, as well as to cultivate the relationship. If and when a gift (major or otherwise) is made, the physician’s help and involvement should be celebrated. Sharing the good news with others can encourage further participation in the major gifts effort.

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