Don't starve foundations during downturn, bolster them, experts say

April 1, 2011


Even though foundations in the ministry have taken a hit during the nation's economic downturn, that doesn't mean that hospitals and health systems should neglect these philanthropic arms.

Quite the opposite, say foundation experts around the Catholic health ministry.

"Our recommendation would be to invest in philanthropy," said Jerry Bagg, president and chief executive of the foundation of Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives. CHI's system-level and local foundations are among the ministry philanthropies that have been strengthening their operations now so they will be well-positioned when the economy recovers fully. They've done this in many ways, including shoring up their infrastructure, improving their solicitation methods, expanding their network of ambassadors and enhancing the way they communicate.

Such investments are in line with recommendations made in recent years by the Philanthropy Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant to health care foundations. That organization said that during the downturn, foundations should be laying the groundwork for the recovery and reequipping themselves to reach out to potential donors.

CHI's Bagg acknowledged such investments may seem counterintuitive in recessionary times. "Foundations may be more inclined to reduce their expenditures on fund-raising activities because of the associated relationship those costs have — at a time with decreased fund-raising revenue — on their fund-raising ratios."

But, he said, slacking off on foundation work now could lead to a disconnect with donors, which can be costly in the long term.

Julie Holt, vice president for resource development at St. Joseph Health System of Orange, Calif., said "the key is to continue building relationships with donors and potential donors within our communities." 

Strong foundations
During the recession, CHI was building up its philanthropic infrastructure by establishing a system-level office to take care of administrative functions. This freed up the time of foundation staff at its local hospitals. CHI set up a mentoring program for hospital-level fund-raisers.

The foundation of Alexian Brothers Health System of Arlington Heights, Ill., also made im--provements. It focused its strategic plan, wrote a vision statement and recruited staff.

The foundations within Saint Thomas Health Services also added staff recently. The Nashville, Tenn.-based system that is part of Ascension Health had benchmarked against other philanthropies and concluded that it could safely staff up and improve its fund-raising work, explained Greg Pope, Saint Thomas vice president for philanthropy. 

Tools of the trade
Fund-raising arms within Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Health were among the ministry organizations that improved the databases they use to locate, target and keep abreast of both current and potential donors. This helps the philanthropies to do a better job of determining who might give, and for which projects.

Jill Hulten, senior director of patient engagement and development operations for the Alexian Brothers, said Alexian's foundation is working internally and with vendors to improve how it researches potential donors and determines their capacity and affinity for giving. For instance, the foundation has used predictive modeling to determine which of its donors would be most likely to participate in planned giving to Alexian.  

Getting creative
Some foundations used technology to cast a wide net for donors. Bon Secours Virginia, which oversees Bon Secours Health System operations in Richmond and Hampton Roads, Va., overhauled its website, making it easier for visitors to find information on how its foundation benefits the community. That regional system also introduced online giving during the recession.

Foundations within Trinity Health now give people the option of texting in a donation. CHI began using social networking to build donor relationships. 

Philanthropic arms around the ministry worked to enhance their network of supporters and encourage them to tub-thump for the foundations.

The high-value donor corps of Bon Secours Virginia's Foundation, which is called the Fleur de Lis Society, once struggled in its efforts to gain new members. During the downturn, the foundation paid renewed attention to the society, which is for those donating more than $1,000. For instance, it involved Bon Secours Virginia board members in the society. One board member agreed to chair the society, and other board members hosted recognition events in their homes for the society members. This enlivened the group and attracted new donors, including major gift givers, physicians and Bon Secours executives.

The foundation of St. Mary's Medical Center in Evansville, Ind., part of Ascension Health, cultivated relationships with community members in the hospital's PrimeWise program. PrimeWise arranges events and health education for senior adults, and those seniors often become donors and ambassadors for St. Mary's.

At Nashville's Saint Thomas system, as at most ministry organizations, chief executives assist in cultivating current and future donors. They are increasing the time they devote to philanthropic development, said Pope, and this is true for health executives across the country.

Saint Thomas is recruiting volunteers with superior fund-raising instincts, particularly to lead its foundation boards and committees. Those leaders are being more intentional about pursuing fund-raising goals. Saint Thomas also is asking volunteers on its regional governance board to tap their own networks, to build philanthropic support for Saint Thomas.

A similar effort under way at Alexian Brothers has foundation staff educating Alexian Foundation board members about philanthropy and giving them tours of the services that benefit from community giving. The staff members talk with board members about their comfort level with asking their contemporaries for donations for Alexian and work to boost their fund-raising skills.

Alexian's philanthropy arm also is building relationships with local parishes, in part to drum up new support for the foundation. 

Patient as donor
Patients whose lives have been impacted by ministry facilities are among the foundations' most generous givers. During the downturn, many philanthropies have been exploring new ways to inspire giving among former patients and their families.

They have been freeing up more of their staff's time so they can visit past givers who are current patients in the hospital. During the visits, the staff members check on the patients' well-being. They never solicit donations in the hospital rooms or while the donors are sick. The only exception is when a high-wealth donor brings up the subject and indicates a desire to explore it.

Tom Lilly, senior vice president of foundation operations for St. Mary's, explained, "We think the (visits) give patients a special touch from the foundation, and it does seem that these visitations have some impact on expressions of appreciation coming in the form of giving. But there are a lot of (other) reasons why this makes sense for our community," including to increase patient satisfaction.

Alexian's foundation staff is making more frequent visits to patients too. They also follow up with patients soon after discharge with a mailing on Alexian's ministry.

Saint Thomas' foundation is highlighting the impact of health care philanthropy and publishes a calendar with stories of grateful patients.

Trinity Health spokesperson Eve Pidgeon said, "This is a good time for all Catholic health systems to educate donors on the impact of their giving and how they make a difference in the lives of our patients and the communities we serve. This education will help us be top of mind when giving, again, becomes a priority."

A ministry of ethical fund-raising

Sr. Georgette Lehmuth, OSF, president and chief executive of the National Catholic Development Conference, will lead an Innovation Forum on ethical fund-raising and philanthropy's growing importance for ministry organizations at the Catholic Health Assembly, June 5-7, at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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