How health care fundraisers can rethink prospect engagement

The internet’s ability to maintain connections has been crucial to ensuring some continuity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of us have grown incredibly reliant upon various forms of virtual engagement in the span of just a few months. We’ve become accustomed to meeting with our colleagues and prospects over video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, attending and hosting virtual events, and conversing with our doctors using telemedicine tools.

As the crisis moves to its next phase with states reopening and some health care advancement teams returning to their offices, we believe that the internet should continue to serve as a crucial element to build and foster connections with donors and prospects.

We know the old modes of engagement may no longer work as budgets shrink and many, if not most, prospects could be reluctant to welcome gift officers into their homes and offices for in-person meetings. Even once prospects become more comfortable with in-person visits, virtual engagements can continue to be part of our tool kit moving forward.

Given that expenses aren’t going to be used for renting rooms, ordering food, flying health care researchers and staff to locations, fundraisers can use prospects’ familiarity with virtual engagement—and telemedicine —as an opportunity to develop new engagement models that can expand our reach beyond face-to-face interactions.

We can adapt some proven strategies to a virtual environment to deepen your relationships with prospects and donors. Here are a few suggestions to spur your creativity:

Develop virtual seminars

There’s a clear need to engage donors and prospects in different ways. That’s why we suggest donor relations officers, stewardship teams and major gift officers at hospitals and medical centers should collaborate to develop monthly, virtual seminars that feature researchers and/or clinicians discussing their work. In some cases, a clinician and researcher can co-present. The researcher can discuss the work he or she is conducting in the lab and hoping to get into clinical trials while the clinician can explain how and when the advancement could benefit patients. A seminar might also include an articulate grateful patient or family member donor telling their story to explain why he or she supports the work.

Each seminar should also feature a development officer who can introduce the researcher and/or clinician. After the presentation, the development officer can either guide attendees to contact him or her or direct them where to turn for additional information. They may also include an online giving link to provide prospects with a simple way to support the institution.

Because these types of seminars can now be done virtually, they’re relatively inexpensive to produce. At the same time, they provide a valuable forum that enables faculty to discuss their work, highlight their needs, and engage with prospects and donors.

The benefits of these seminars go even further. To start, they can help development officers build stronger relationships with faculty as they build a session together.

At the same time, they may appeal to prospects with comorbidities—even after the current crisis passes—as they are less likely to want to visit a hospital. It also offers a way for those with health risks and/or interests to stay informed. Finally, it provides a means to engage patients and prospects who live in a different city given that officers don’t need to rely on traveling to engage them.

Even after communities open up and enable one-on-one visits, this type of virtual engagement on a regular monthly cadence can serve as a complement to organizations’ engagement strategies.
The seminars can also produce valuable insights. For example, they can help institutions better understand donors’ interests by tracking which seminars they attend and whether they participate (i.e. ask questions). While officers often struggle to figure out how to talk to prospects, these seminars can open the door for discussions. A question-and-answer feature or chat button will also help your officers learn what prospects are thinking while providing the added benefit of ensuring next steps to respond to their inquiries.

Take donors into the lab (virtually)

This approach is similar to the seminar format. Institutions can also use video conference tools to show donors their researchers’ labs. Like the seminars, they can feature a basic format that features the primary researchers, plus post-docs and fellows when appropriate, talking about the research they’re conducting, how they’re conducting it and what they aim to achieve with their efforts. Resources needed to pull this presentation off include support for personnel, supplies and equipment and a virtual environment that can be staged to bring donors into the lab and to visually show their impact.

These presentations don’t need to be complicated; they require minimal setup that includes one advancement support person who can facilitate the presentation, as well as to open and close the video with an appeal. We suggest inviting about 20 people to the staged presentation.

To arrange these sessions, officers should pull lists of individuals who have given to disease areas or a specific research fund. Stewardship is always a critical component of ensuring donors continue to support vital research, and with this format, you can broaden your reach beyond one or two donors. You can also further personalize these sessions with an advancement officer specifically referencing in the introduction that attendees are donors and highlight how much support was made possible together. Officers should use this time to emphasize the solidarity of the donor group and spotlight how their similar goals of eradicating a disease or finding better treatment options are making a difference. These presentations are also a time to steward a lead donor by asking them to personally share their story for why they are contributing.

Replicate leadership dinners

In the pre-COVID-19 universe, an institution’s dean/president/CEO would host small dinners for top prospects and donors in the hospital, a patron’s home or the CEO’s home. The experience offered prospects and donors an intimate experience where they could engage with organizational leaders.
While an intimate dinner may be off the table for the foreseeable future, we can transform that experience to a virtual environment by planting the leader in his or her home and holding a video conference call with a background similar to that which the prospects and donors would experience if they went to the executive’s house.

While the virtual environment enables you to be more inclusive, it’s important to retain the event’s exclusivity. We suggest maintaining an intimate experience by ensuring that only a selective group of no more than five prospects and donors are invited. Again, think of your key donors who live in other cities or those who had difficulty commuting to your dinners in the past.

By building new engagement models, institutions can create more ways to interact with prospects and donors at a time when those types of interactions aren’t otherwise possible. They also offer gift officers a way to deepen their ties to donors by providing them with a natural follow-up opportunity.
These virtual engagements build on, and complement the work that institutions were doing offline. But by building these new pipelines they can strengthen ties and create a new model that could benefit them going forward.


If you need assistance rethinking your prospect engagement strategy, contact Jeff at jnearhoof@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Jeff Nearhoof

Senior Vice President

Jeff Nearhoof, Vice President, brings over 30 years of experience leading advancement and development programs in both public and private universities. Jeff has extensive experience in prospect and donor cultivation and management, data analysis, strategic thinking, and employee management and mentoring. He brings a depth of experience spanning multiple industries.…