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.

How Prospect Research Benefits the Health Care System

John Wilson
Published:  01/29/2019

Even the most financially stable hospitals or health care organizations today struggle with shrinking margins that allow for little more revenue than is required to maintain their existing facilities. Philanthropy’s impact on health care is significant and essential. It has served as the community groundswell that built many of today’s hospitals, it has funded research leading to healing discoveries, it speeds technical advances and innovations and it assures infrastructure and access to quality care is available when it is needed most.

Because philanthropy is part of the not-for-profit health care organization’s core identity, it is imperative that foundations and development departments use tactics and techniques that enable the greatest possible benefit to the organization’s mission. It is equally important that those activities be conducted in an ethical manner.

How Wealth Screening Can Inform Development Practice

Like a diagnostic tool in health care practice, informed prospect research helps focus the work of philanthropy on the right person, in the right place and at the right time.  

One commonly used prospect research tool is wealth screening, a term that refers to the aggregation of publicly available records, news, donor announcements and recognition from other not-for-profit organizations to provide an estimate of an individual’s philanthropic potential.

AHP member hospitals and health care organizations recognize the sensitivity of information generated through wealth screening, even if the information is derived from publicly available sources. It is important to emphasize that such foundations understand it is crucial to keep such information confidential. All such foundations have strong protocols in place to control access to this information.

A prospective donor’s likelihood to make a gift can be measured using three variables:

  • PROPENSITY: Has this person given to not-for-profit causes before?
  • AFFINITY: Is this person passionate about your cause and organization?
  • CAPACITY: How much wealth can this person afford to donate?

Research tools such as wealth screening can indicate whether a potential donor has the propensity to give — through a look at their public giving history — and can provide an estimate of their capacity to give, but they cannot create affinity, the donor’s passion for an organization and its mission.

Instead, donor affinity in health care is built first through experiencing quality care, then by deliberate cultivation, thoughtful stewardship and an understanding of the impact their gift has made. Philanthropy is far more than the mechanics of prospect research, direct mail, naming opportunities, and other tactical elements of the process. Rather, philanthropy offers patients the opportunity to participate in a joyful and meaningful expression through which they can make a positive impact on the world. In this way, philanthropy is as much about the donor as it is about the recipient organization.

Ethical Standards in Philanthropy

The Association for Healthcare Philanthropy has established ethical principles and recommendations for health care development in a variety of areas, including grateful patient philanthropy. These recommendations can serve as a reference for practice as well as a tool for development officers to use when examining their organization’s policies around the safeguarding of patient data.

Foundations that ascribe to the ethical principles of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy do not conduct wealth screening of their patients to determine whether to provide care to someone, to determine the quality or type of care someone receives, to determine who gets more attention than other patients or to determine how a patient is billed for services provided.

Distinct Roles for Development Officers and Physicians

A successful grateful patient program will involve education and engagement of physicians and other clinicians. However, clinical and philanthropic discussions should be intentionally separated.

Requests for support are made by the development officer, not the physician, and happen outside the clinical setting. The physician’s role in philanthropy should center around two elements: listening for expressions of gratitude and knowing how to appropriately ask if he or she can connect the patient with a development officer.

Philanthropy professionals’ first and primary focus is on the gratitude demonstrated by a patient or prospective donor. Without gratitude and the desire to give back, the potential for a major gift remains low. Used in combination with expressions of gratitude received from patients and their families, prospect research data helps direct the conversation to discover where the patient would like to have the most impact and invest in the future of health care. 

Why Prospect Research Matters

Development staff may receive questions from health care executives, physicians or community members about their practices in prospect research and wealth screening. There are several ways to explain why prospect research is an integral part of the development process.

The purpose of wealth screening is to preliminarily identify individuals who might have the capacity and philanthropic inclination to make a gift in support of their hospital or health care organization in as efficient, as cost-effective, as fiscally responsible and as respectful a manner as possible.

Hospitals and health care organizations treat millions of unique patients each year. Some of these patients, motivated by the care they received, give back to recognize the clinicians who were responsible for their care or to invest in the future of health care in their community. However, these grateful patients’ capacity to give may vary. Some may be $50 annual donors. Others may give at the $1,000 level. Still others may have the interest and capacity to make a transformative major gift. Prospect research tools serve as one method for efficiently sorting potential donors to ensure any request for philanthropic support is appropriately tailored to the individual donor.

Major gift philanthropy is consistently one of the highest-return tactics, outpacing special events and annual giving. According to the 2018 AHP Report on Giving, top-performing organizations relied on major gifts more often than the average institution. Identifying qualified major gift prospects is of critical importance as philanthropy increasingly becomes a key strategic revenue stream that can be invested back into the health care organization.

As stewards of the not-for-profit health care organization’s mission, philanthropy professionals have a responsibility to employ best-practice philanthropy to fortify present performance, to help keep costs more affordable and ensure future existence of the mission. Prospect research increases the development staff’s efficiency by serving as an initial method of identifying the best way to work with individual donors, from direct mail to personal solicitation.

Other Recommendations for Prospect Research

Consider restricting access to wealth screening data to certain members of the major gift staff. Just as hospitals have policies designed to safeguard patients’ health information, institutions should implement safeguards for financial information.

Be transparent about your practice of wealth screening. Prospects or donors who hear about the concept of wealth screening secondhand, without understanding what the term means, may be surprised or unhappy that the hospital or health care organization has not shared this practice with them.

Additional research is needed across the practice of grateful patient philanthropy internationally to understand potential donors’ views on the use of wealth screening. Consider conducting research at the local level to learn how your own donors and prospects feel about the topic.

AHP’s ethical recommendations are intended to be general guidelines and should be tailored to each hospital or health care organization’s individual policies. Talk to your leadership and compliance department about how to implement these recommendations in ways that work for your organization.


This article incorporates recommendations from several AHP member chief development officers as well as the recent publication “Ethical Issues and Recommendations in Grateful Patient Philanthropy.”

NEWS  /01/28/19
Official guidelines regarding the ethics of grateful patient fundraising
NEWS  /03/08/07
AHP has been tracking for several years the shift in health care fundraising activity toward major gifts.
NEWS  /12/20/17
Turning patients into donors can be tricky. You have to be sensitive when speaking about health-related topics...

Meet The Author

John Wilson
John Wilson
Director of Content Marketing
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

Share This

facebook-icon twitter-icon linkedin-icon