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

Successful major gift fundraising in a small shop

Published:  10/17/2013

Originally published in the October 17, 2013 AHP Connect

The following article is based on the webinar, “Major gift fundraising in a small
shop,” presented January 23, 2013, by Randall Hallett, CFRE, executive director of development at The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb.

What is a major gift? The AHP Standards Manual uses the term to include cash donations and pledges of $10,000 or more from individuals, support groups or auxiliaries. Does it include a grant from a family foundation? What about the money raised by sponsoring a golf tournament or gala? Perhaps, as with beauty, what is “major” lies in the eyes of the beholder. Or, in this case, the eyes of the fundraiser— especially the small shop that cannot cast its philanthropic net very far.

Randall Hallett, CFRE, encourages development offices with modest-sized staffs to eschew the siren call of special events and concentrate more of their limited time and resources in pursuit of major gifts that can make a real difference for a hospital. He makes the case for creating a well-run major gifts program through careful, step-by-step planning and implementation that engages individual donors, foundations, physicians and grateful patients. The result will deliver significant return on investment (ROI) that far outweighs revenue and ROI achieved from special events.

As executive director of development for The Nebraska Medical Center (TNMC) in Omaha, the state’s largest health care facility with more than 620 beds, 2,500 credentialed physicians and 5,400 employees, Hallett heads up a fundraising shop comprised of a half-dozen development professionals—some of whom work part time. They support the medical center’s clinical operations, while the larger University of Nebraska Foundation is in charge of fundraising for the University's education and research functions.

Changing focus

Too often, Hallett argues, small shops devote too much time, too much staff and too many resources to special events—where the payoff is too small. Although special events may allow fundraisers to interact with potential donors, these occasions often are narrowly focused on raising money for a single item or cause. In contrast, the major gifts partnership connection— patiently nurtured—can offer donors a wide range of giving options based on their individual interests and the hospital’s needs.

Planning and communication play central roles in the TNMC development office’s major gifts program, whose goal is “to offer as many financially feasible opportunities to engage the most attractive pool of potential donors at various ‘entry points’ that might induce a more personal

conversation with the development office regarding potential philanthropic possibilities at The Nebraska Medical Center.”

Plan for the long haul

For a small shop, building up a successful major gifts effort requires an investment in time and talent for the long haul—seven to 10 years, according to Hallett. The initial year should be devoted to organizing, establishing goals and setting up a reliable tracking system—as well as earning the buy-in of top leadership and other internal stakeholders. A businesslike, databased approach is most convincing, with realistic benchmarks set along the way.

To start “filling the pipeline” in year two, a grateful patient program—overseen by a major gifts officer—can begin to identify appropriate prospects based on wealth screening or a record of their past donations to the hospital. The development office may schedule brief room visits with selected patients, to look in on them and make their acquaintance or to thank them if they have been a donor in the past. Depending on the result of this inpatient visit, follow up contact after discharge may be pursued to further the major gift request process...if and when appropriate.

Hallett recommends adding a physician engagement component to the major gift agenda by the third year. Rather than an appeal for donations from physicians, this term refers to an important means of identifying potential donors, based on a patient’s having expressed a noteworthy degree of gratitude to his or her physician. Physicians may recommend follow up by the development office but they are not expected to directly engage in the “ask” at this time.

This approach, rooted in the physician-patient relationship, is a worthwhile way to fill the potential donor pipeline. Yet it is important to note that establishing a properly functioning physician engagement program means taking the time to educate doctors, assure them that they remain in control of that vital relationship and ensure compliance with privacy rules.

Other opportunities

A successful major gifts program also must tap into grants offered by foundations and government agencies. Hallett suggests approaching foundations, especially family foundations, much as you might approach grateful patients by matching their goals with those of the hospital. To be successful in this arena, it is essential to foster relationships with foundation leaders. They must appreciate the hospital’s value as a community asset and understand what is needed for it to improve its ability to provide high quality health care services.

Hallett also sees indications of growing opportunity for Federal grants due to a greater reliance on grant making agencies. He regards the health care quality improvement requirements of the

Affordable Care Act (ACA) as catalysts for new grant programs aimed at finding, testing and disseminating innovative health care practices. However, the extent to which small shops can compete for such grants may be limited.

Finally, Hallett cautions small shops to be patient and realistic about their capabilities. If today’s pipeline for major gifts consists of just five or 10 prospects, that’s fine. The important thing is to maintain a steady pace as priorities shift away from special events toward the philanthropic success that lies within the realm of major gifts.

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