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Philanthropy Champions: Changing the Culture of Grateful Patient Giving

Dana Krauss
Published:  09/19/2019

Philanthropy championsThis article is adapted from a 2019 AHP Webinar Series event presented by Elizabeth Dollhopf-Brown, Associate Vice President for Development, University of Rochester Medical Center, and Valerie A. Donnelly, Director of the Philanthropy Champions & Clinical Advancement, University of Rochester Medical Center.


It is commonly known that the learned refusal of gratitude is harmful to the health of physicians – but what if we could change that while engaging grateful patients in philanthropy? At the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), the idea of a “Philanthropy Champion” was proposed to bridge the gap between great physicians and their grateful patients who want to contribute to the work of the hospital. In collaboration with the major gifts team, Philanthropy Champions can redefine how grateful patients give and enrich donors’ connections to the foundations they support.

The Components

For URMC, there were three main questions that needed to be answered before planning the logistics of the Philanthropy Champions program: Who would the Philanthropy Champions be, who would be their support and how would they be taught the best practices of grateful patient cultivation?

When thinking about who would make a great Philanthropy Champion at your hospital, consider who is a leader among clinicians. This does not mean they have to be in a position of leadership by title. A leader can be anyone who influences or has a positive impact on their peers. It is also important for a Philanthropy Champion to be open to the idea of grateful patient philanthropy. This can mean they are simply interested in learning more, they want to get better at saying “You’re welcome” to patients or they are fully on board with providing referrals to the development team.

As for who will support the Philanthropy Champions, URMC created the concept of “Advancement Partners.” The Advancement Partners would be major gift officers who work directly with a specific group of Philanthropy Champions to be the point of contact for referrals and help the Champions to understand their role in philanthropy. Each Advancement Partner would work with Philanthropy Champions of similar departments or groups — an Advancement Partner for nurses, for orthopedic surgeons, for oncologists, etc.

The curriculum for Philanthropy Champions had to be engaging and strategic with flexible scheduling, including a kick-off, general sessions, case studies of successful Philanthropy Champion partnerships and lessons on philanthropic articulation. The most important feature of the curriculum would be one-on-one conversations between the Philanthropy Champion and the Advancement Partner with the intent to build a transparent relationship and develop individualized strategies for cultivating referrals.

The Planning

While the ideas were clear, the logistical organization of a program like this would take time. The first step to actualizing a Philanthropy Champions program is to gain approval from your CEO and gather major gift officers who are willing to take on the role of Advancement Partner. Benchmark other physician-involved philanthropy programs for ideas. Survey larger foundations with a grain of salt — the expectations for your own program should be based on examples set by foundations of equal or smaller size. Look for unique ideas in their programs from which you can draw inspiration, or even mirror in your own program. Have any relevant data at the ready. Gather pre-existing donor information in an advanced fundraising database and — if feasible — compile a separate HIPAA-compliant database holding relevant grateful patient information.

Set out your list of goals and guiding principles for the program. While expanding the patient prospect pipeline is the philanthropic goal, the ethical principles and standards that underlie that goal are of primary importance. One of the largest misconceptions about health care philanthropy is that it preys on patients. This misconception is what makes so many physicians and clinicians uncomfortable with philanthropy, even if a patient is asking for ways in which they can better support the work of the hospital.

The work of the Advancement Partners can be held entirely separate from the Philanthropy Champions – the only bridge between the two is the referral. Clinicians only need to be taught what to listen for, what to respond with and what to do when a patient expresses gratitude. The normalization of philanthropy does not need to be taboo — and the creation of strong Philanthropy Champions can break this age-old notion. The process of brainstorming and theorizing the Philanthropy Champions program took eight months at URMC. Any program with a high demand for human resources cannot and should not be rushed. Take your time and work out as many of the small details as possible.

The Impact and Lessons Learned

After several rounds of cohorts and edits to the program at URMC, the concept of Philanthropy Champions was not only normalized, but quantified. Since its start in 2015, the URMC Philanthropy Champions have helped to raise more than $33 million from grateful patients and families. There have been 118 champions at URMC, and the curriculum has been taught to other departments and medical centers outside the program. The physicians who entered the program adamantly opposed to accepting gratitude or making referrals are now at least able to say, “You’re welcome,” when their work is appreciated, creating healthier and happier physicians. Philanthropy Champions have magnified the program’s influence by creating a multiplier effect. When the Champions are excited about the program, they’ll share their experiences with their colleagues, recruiting more Champions.

If you’re looking to start your own Champions program or are looking for new ways to get your clinicians involved in philanthropy, start at your C-suite. Getting the support of your CEO is crucial to developing a plan for clinician engagement. Have a strategy for measuring the success of your program — number of referrals, dollars, etc. — so you may find places for improvement in the future. When pioneering a new idea, it is important to remember it might not go according to plan. Obstacles are a part of the development process, but helping your clinicians learn to accept appreciation and capitalize on their philanthropic capabilities will make every step worth the effort.

Watch the full webinar on Philanthropy Champtions and grateful patient giving here.

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Meet The Author

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Dana Krauss
Communications Team
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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