Giving to ministry foundations by new and repeat donors is strong during pandemic

March 1, 2022


In mid-summer 2020, during a COVID-19 caseload peak, frontline health care workers at a Bon Secours Mercy Health hospital in Richmond, Virginia, express their thanks to all the donors who contributed cash and in-kind gifts. The money went toward the purchase of personal protective equipment, ventilators, UV disinfecting robots, and other equipment. Many donors brought meals, snacks and other comfort items for staff.

While the pandemic caused significant disruptions in most of the usual channels that health care foundations use to solicit and process donations, giving has remained steady — and even increased — over the past couple of years. Community members, including many new donors, have been expressing their gratitude to health care providers for their courage and commitment during the pandemic through monetary and in-kind gifts.

Several executives from ministry foundations and from a health care philanthropy association told Catholic Health World that foundations had to find new ways of relating to major and casual donors as the pandemic interrupted their usual ways of courting philanthropic giving.


"The pandemic showed the world the importance of health care, and people are seeing how the work we do as foundations is essential, and that we contribute to and support health care in communities," says Fred Najjar. He is executive vice president and chief philanthropy officer of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health and chair of the board of directors of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy.

Personal touch
When the pandemic shut down communities nationwide in early 2020, infection protocols prevented hospital foundation staffs from interacting with donors as they normally would.

Outreach to donors is very relationship-based and before the pandemic there was much face-to-face contact, especially with major and repeat donors. Foundation staff host donors who contemplate big gifts at private lunches, give them VIP facility tours and visit them in their homes to find out where the donor's philanthropic goals intersect with health care programs and research.


The calendar included lectures, golf tournaments, parties and lunches for other donor groups. All such in-person activity came to a hard stop in the late winter and early spring months of 2020, says Tim Koder, president of the Bon Secours Mercy Health Foundations.


During that first phase of the pandemic, says Alice Ayres, it was in question whether it was even appropriate to reach out and continue to make asks in the midst of the confusion and fear. Ayres is president and chief executive of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy.

Information conduits
But, Ayres says, foundations' staff quickly realized the pause of business as usual was an opportunity to build closer relationships with donors, personally and around health care's mission.

Koder says Bon Secours Mercy Health foundations' staff started calling donors early in the pandemic to check in on them and ask how they were doing and how the staff could help them, and "we learned that people just wanted information."

Koder, Najjar, and executives with Providence St. Joseph Health and Trinity Health say their foundations' staff played an integral role in coming up with ways to enable hospital leadership, clinicians and other experts to quickly and efficiently provide the vital information that donors and the broader community wanted.


Working with other hospital departments, foundation staff arranged virtual town halls and question-and-answer sessions. They sent out broadcast emails and texts. CommonSpirit's Paul Richardson, system senior vice president of philanthropy engagement, notes that while the system's foundations continued to use the postal system for outreach throughout the pandemic, they used it judiciously and as part of broader, coordinated outreach campaigns.

CommonSpirit and other systems' foundation staff posted online tours of their facilities to give viewers an idea of what it was like on their campuses while visitation was restricted, and they made available video interviews with caregivers.


While in most cases any community member could take part in the virtual events, view the online resources and sign up for the email communiques, members of the hospitals' donor community were particularly appreciative of getting information in this way, says Fran Petonic, senior vice president of philanthropy for Trinity Health.

Mercy Health Chief of Police Everett Wehrly boards one of two all-terrain utility vehicles gifted to a Bon Secours Mercy Health – Toledo, Ohio, hospital.

"Donors view themselves as investors in our system and facilities, many of them feel close to our medical staff and leaders, and many of them were interested in the well-being of our staff and wanted to know how they could help them," Petonic says.

PPE and an ATV
Across the U.S. grateful community members expressed their support for clinical staff, who cared for patients battling complications from COVID-19. Community members and local businesses rallied to provide masks and other personal protective equipment. Says Ayres: "There was a surge of giving right away because the media was talking about the need for PPE and the dire situation of clinicians, so foundations saw a huge jump in in-kind gifts." Ayres says foundation staffs had to develop supply chain expertise, and learn how to safely receive and distribute the gifts to hospital staff and patients.

Some Trinity Health sites set up an online platform so community members could purchase meals for clinicians and other staff. Donors paid for respite rooms where emotionally exhausted hospital staff could decompress. Some donors to Bon Secours Mercy Health facility foundations gave chairs for staff lounges. Midwest Industries, a maker of outdoor power equipment and a seller of all-terrain vehicles gave a Mercy Health – Toledo, Ohio, hospital two Cub Cadet ATVs. The vehicles are used to cart staff and supplies around the campus.


Laurie Kelley is chief philanthropy officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. She leads the Providence National Foundation and helps coordinate the efforts of the 40-plus foundations across Providence.  Kelley says many donors funded the purchase of essential medical equipment, including ventilators.

Ayres says much of this type of need-based giving was from "crisis donors" who jumped in to help. While the foundation executives say they and their staffs have been working to build relationships with these new donors, they do not yet know whether they'll evolve into long-term givers.

The ministry executives note that one area of their foundations' work that remained consistent throughout the pandemic was their grant-seeking, which often is done in concert with other hospital departments. They say their foundations secured valuable grants, including new pandemic-related funds from federal agencies. Koder says at Bon Secours Mercy Health, grant revenue has nearly tripled in the past two years.

New normal
Petonic and Koder say foundations within their systems restarted active fundraising on some major capital and service line campaigns within about a half year of the pandemic's onset.

Over the course of the pandemic, foundation executives have been taking donors' cues about how best to communicate with them. They're resuming in-person visits with large-scale donors as those givers express comfort with that, and sticking with phone calls and emails when that is the preferred way to communicate.

The Panda Express restaurant chain and the Panda Cares Foundation donated 100 lunches and 42,000 surgical and N95 masks to Providence St. Joseph Health facilities in Oregon. Here, general managers for Panda Express stores in Portland, Oregon, deliver some of the items to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland.

They say they've been reevaluating social fundraising events, such as galas and golf outings, to determine which ones still make sense to do, and how to do them safely. Some foundations have resumed select in-person larger-scale events, with infection protocols in place.

Ayres says virtual fundraisers have met with limited success. The foundation staffs that reimagined the events instead of making old events virtual have been most successful.

'Good investment'
The Bon Secours Mercy Health, CommonSpirit Health, Providence St. Joseph and Trinity Health executives say that gifts to their foundations have remained steady or have increased during the pandemic. Najjar of CommonSpirit says foundations in that system had one of their best fundraising years ever in 2020, raised even more in 2021 and are on pace already to have a strong 2022. Najjar attributes the success to continued giving by faithful donors, combined with the infusion of funds from new donors.

Petonic says fundraising flattened a bit at Trinity Health foundations at the start of the pandemic amid economic uncertainty but then increased as established philanthropists returned to active giving. Koder of Bon Secours Mercy Health says giving in almost all categories increased during the pandemic. This includes grants to the foundations as well as planned, corporate and annual gifts.

And Kelley of Providence says that system's foundations saw some of their best fundraising levels ever during the pandemic. "People saw us as a good investment" because of all that health care providers were doing during the pandemic, she says.

Foundations meet needs of clinicians, frontline staff

Traditionally, one function of health care foundations has been to provide resources to meet staff members' needs, and that role has proved essential during the pandemic.

The historic, December 2021 long-track tornado that struck Tennessee and Kentucky caused catastrophic damage including in this Princeton, Kentucky, neighborhood. Bon Secours Mercy Health has come to the aid of employees whose lives and property were significantly impacted. The system's foundation has provided them with assistance with temporary housing and rebuilding costs.

Ministry executives say foundations within their systems have helped to pay for and in some cases secure personal protective equipment for staff. The foundations also funded well-being resources for staff and provided monetary aid to employees in financial distress.

Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic's foundation worked with the Independence Blue Cross Foundation and the NeuroFlow mental health software company to create wellness resources for clinicians. Aimed particularly to nurses, the app-based program allows clinicians to log their mood scores, make journal entries, assess their sleep patterns, and access wellness information.

Additionally, during the pandemic, Trinity Health built out an online platform for staff to apply for emergency assistance funds.

Bon Secours Mercy Health's system-level foundation provided associate hardship funds to the system. That money went to staff who were furloughed in 2020 when inpatient counts fell and ambulatory care visits plummeted as hospitals scaled back the services they offered to free up resources to focus on their COVID-19 response.

The foundation paid for child care and eldercare for staff who remained in the active workforce but who had new dependent-care expenses. Early in the pandemic especially, it was difficult and costly to find such care, particularly with many child care and eldercare facilities shut down because of the pandemic, says Tim Koder, president of the Bon Secours Mercy Health Foundations at Bon Secours Mercy Health.

The Bon Secours Mercy Health system foundation bought meals for workers, and in some cases paid for hotel rooms for frontline staff who feared exposing family members to COVID-19. It gave about $42 million for such support.

The foundation once again came to associates' aid late last year when tornadoes destroyed some associates' homes and other property in Kentucky.



Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.