Moving From Deans to Doctors: Helping Gift Officers Succeed in a New Environment

Imagine that you’re a development director and manager for a medical center and hospital. You’re excited about a new hire, a seasoned fundraiser with a strong track record of closing six-figure gifts, over 15 years of experience, and lots of potential. But you do have one concern: that experience was gained entirely in academic fundraising, mostly at a large public university. As a savvy manager, you know that a gift officer who excelled in the business school may not be as successful at the medical center.  And not because they aren’t as talented, but because it’s just different.

It’s not an uncommon concern for our healthcare clients, who often hire out of colleges and universities. There are indeed significant differences between the two sectors, not least of which is the critical role of physicians in the development operation. But gift officers who understand these differences, regardless of background, will prove a valuable asset to your institution.

The Fundamentals

Through our work with hundreds of clients, ranging from regional hospitals to university-affiliated medical research centers, we have identified a set of core characteristics that are the hallmarks of successful fundraising for healthcare. Gift officers who cultivate a deep understanding of these principles and, moreover, are able to reflect them in their work, are well positioned to succeed.

  • A distinct, yet integrated, patient fundraising initiative. Development programs that have specific and structured strategies for prospect identification and management, as well as patient-centric communications, are more successful than those programs that treat patient lists as simply a source of prospect names. Gift officers should partner with their physicians to understand their relationships with patients, and to appeal to the experience the individual and/or family member has had within the institution – in ways that are HIPPA compliant, of course.
  • Programs driven by data. A large medical center might easily admit 2,000 outpatients and 300 inpatients per day – not including emergency room visits or clinic appointments. Program managers think carefully about how to store, transmit, and analyze data so that it can be readily used by gift officers, and supplement this internal data with external information through activities like daily wealth screening and comparing patient lists to lists of local high-capacity donors.
  • Good patient and family experiences. It’s no surprise that positive patient experiences can lead to increased giving, and healthcare providers with strong development programs look carefully at the patient experience across the organization. Sometimes, this is a dynamic that is out of our reach. But whenever possible, assisting a prospect to better maneuver the hospital setting can be that “extra something” touchpoint that makes a big impact on the experience.
  • Support from leadership. To be successful, development programs in healthcare need a lot of support from other areas of the organization – patient data systems, legal for HIPAA compliance and risk management, clinicians and researchers. The best way to foster this critical cooperation is to demonstrate that you have buy in from leadership. Ask leadership to discuss with others throughout the institution the importance of partnering with development, and especially about the institution’s past philanthropic success, and ask that an introduction to development be part of orientation for new clinicians and researchers. Having development at the leadership table will reinforce that development is a key part of the team charged with supporting and advancing the institution’s excellence in patient care – an inarguably shared goal.
  • Engagement of physicians and other healthcare providers. Physicians see the impact of philanthropic support in everything from a renovated family lounge to a new multimillion dollar surgical robot. But few physicians emerge from medical school equipped to be enthusiastic, effective partners in fundraising – indeed, many didn’t realize they would be asked to be. Gift officers need to be prepared to have primary responsibility for navigating these often-challenging relationships – and the first step is understanding the audience. Gifts officers should strive to learn the best times and methods to communicate with their physicians, meeting them “on their turf.” And demonstrating a sincere interest in clinicians’ research and areas of expertise is a powerful way to cultivate a strong relationship built on mutual understanding and trust.

Think Like a Physician

Academics and physicians have a lot in common – and at academic medical centers, are often one in the same. An attending physician and a newly tenured professor have each spent upwards of a decade learning in an intensely focused, high-pressure environment. They are shocked by how often paperwork, red tape, committees, evaluations, and the like take their focus away from their work with patients and students. With the ever-present pressures of balancing clinical time and research and publishing, fundraising feels like an extra task. They worry about how they’ll manage to get it all done in the limited amount of time they have – just as deans do.

Yet despite the similarities, there are significant differences that gift officers working in healthcare must understand. While many of us had meaningful relationships with faculty during our undergraduate or graduate education – a professor who took on a mentorship role, or one whose lectures were particularly inspiring – the relationship between a physician and a patient is arguably bound to be much more intimate. Neither one is better, just different.

While many colleges and universities do work to bring together academics, donors, and, for example, scholarship recipients, the nature of medical treatment means even closer contact. A physician might meet with a patient and their family dozens of times over the course of treatment, seeing the patients and families when they are at their most vulnerable, physically and emotionally. Physicians must trust that the gift officer will handle these sensitive situations appropriately, and gift officers must work hard to cultivate that trust. Think about common concerns – HIPAA compliance, for example – and be able to confidently address them. Have a deep enough understanding of the physician’s research that you are able to discuss it with prospects. Above all, be prepared to answer the question: “How will this help my patients?”

The Patient Experience

At a university, you might not be making an ask of an alumnus for five, ten, even twenty years. You build the relationship slowly, over time. In healthcare, gift officers may find that the cultivation period lasts only as long as the patient experience is still top of mind. There is a narrow window of time in which the patient or family is focused on the experience – that is, they have just lived their own “impact story.” Gift officers need to seize that opportunity to help the patient or family connect that experience to the potential to create their own impact. In short, qualify quickly.

Even more important than internalizing this sense of urgency is cultivating the ability to be truly, sincerely empathetic. Just like the physicians, gift officers are meeting people at their most vulnerable: While gifts are often motivated by a desire to express gratitude for a successful outcome, they are just as often giving to honor a loved one who has passed, in gratitude for compassionate care or in the hope that philanthropic support will advance medicine toward a cure. Gift officers must be prepared to navigate these emotional conversations, regardless of outcome, while still being able to convey genuine positivity and excitement around the potential impact of a gift.

In Closing

No matter the sector – healthcare, the arts, higher education – fundraising is a fulfilling field. And the best practices that gift officers cultivate in one are readily applicable to the rest. Like the best practices described here – cultivating buy-in from leadership, thoughtfully engaging institutional partners, understanding the prospect’s experience – most cut across sectors. With a little tweaking, a little shift in perspective, that outstanding education gift officer you just hired will be equally successful in healthcare.

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