Strengthening Fundraising Partnerships in the C-Suite: Keys for Development Officers in Healthcare

Strengthening Fundraising Partnerships in the C-Suite Keys for Development Officers in Healthcare 

Development officers in academic medicine: How many times have you been seated around the table with your C-suite colleagues problem-solving the latest financial concern for your institution, when suddenly, all eyes dart to you – the person who presumably has money sitting in a drawer ready to help? While this example is a little a tongue-in-cheek, it has happened to me more than once in my 30-year career as a fundraiser within academic medicine and higher education.  

Understanding the concerns of your C-Suite colleagues can go a long way in establishing trust and producing creative solutions that advance everyone’s purposes. 

This scenario reveals a potential disconnect between the C-suite and development leaders. At worst, it suggests that expectations about the availability and use of philanthropic funding may not be grounded in reality; at best, it points to a need for stronger collaboration between all parties. 

The medical field continues to face significant financial pressures, including high employee turnover, nationwide staffing shortages (especially in nursing), wage escalation, and the rising costs of patient care. Understandably, hospitals and medical centers need all hands on deck to confront these and other emerging challenges, many of which philanthropy can help address. 

Advancement leaders must engage with the priorities and perspectives of C-suite leaders, and vice versa, to achieve ambitious philanthropic and programmatic goals. Partnering with colleagues to influence philanthropic funding takes planning and coordination, along with a holistic understanding of the obstacles ahead and the resources available to tackle them.  

While these keys to promoting synergy between development officers and the C-suite can certainly benefit academic medical centers, they can also serve mission-driven organizations in a variety of sectors. 

Enlist Support from Leadership 

Affirmation of the mission-critical importance of fundraising must come from the top of the organization. It sends a powerful message when the dean or CEO references philanthropy internally as a “team sport” critical to achieving “our” mission.  

Chief Development Officers (CDOs) and development staff should engage deans and CEOs early in their tenure, establishing a schedule for how and when all parties can meet regularly for reporting on fundraising activity. Moreover, CDOs should be involved in the process of generating goals and setting strategic priorities alongside their C-suite colleagues at this early stage, which is not always the case.  

CDOs should be involved in the process of generating goals and setting strategic priorities alongside their C-suite colleagues 

Consider how leaders might support a capital project designed to benefit current and future patients, such as a replacement hospital or a new emergency room. Deans and CEOs would convene their fellow C-suite leaders, alongside clinical department chairs and development leaders, to review the financial plan for capital, philanthropy goals, and each party’s role in fundraising. This would demonstrate clearly to the group that “we” own the goal. Without this clarity, the CDO bears full responsibility for the attainment of fundraising goals that he or she may not have helped define – and which may or may not be supported by the pool of potential donors. 

When CDOs are involved upfront, the development team does not feel like decisions about philanthropy are being foisted upon them apart from their perspectives and contributions. In turn, C-suite members can facilitate connections between prospective donors and development leaders, reinforcing networks that are vital to fundraising success. 

Align Philanthropic Goals with C-Suite Priorities 

While it is easy to focus on our own agendas, CDOs and development staff must understand the priorities and pressures senior leaders face in their respective areas. Then, development staff can educate C-suite colleagues and contextualize and align philanthropic goals to these priorities.  

Considering others’ objectives and pressures helps CDOs approach colleagues thoughtfully and in the spirit of cooperative problem-solving.  

  • Chief Financial Officers prioritize the bottom line, therefore, CDOs must be in sync with cash projections needed from philanthropy to fund projects like capital expansions. Conversations with the CFO need to start in the initial planning phases of fundraising for capital and consider the importance of cash flow at a certain frequency. Development professionals can also remind CFOs of opportunities for budget-relieving gifts, like a piece of equipment or recruitment costs for a new physician, which can help support the bottom line. 
  • Chief Marketing Officers prioritize market share, telling the institutional story, and attracting new patients to build patient volume. Development teams can assist with annual giving appeals that mirror marketing strategy and reinforce this message. For example, imagine a campaign for market share for cardiovascular services launching in February for American Heart Month, with complementary annual giving appeals and donor engagement opportunities, such as tours of the hospital’s lab.  
  • Chief Research Officers focus on building public and private research funding. Taking this into account, development officers might target fundraising efforts to support novel early-stage research to attract funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other entities. Development can also assist the Chief Research Officer and investigators with proposals to support research from private grant foundations like the American Heart Association. 

Understanding the concerns of your C-Suite colleagues can go a long way in establishing trust and producing creative solutions that advance everyone’s purposes. Likewise, educating your colleagues on the integral role that CDOs and development officers play to achieve institution-wide goals encourages senior leaders to include the development team in conversations from the start.  

Develop Shared Goals and Perspectives 

During my tenure as Chief Development Officer for the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University, I witnessed the beauty of institutional alignment firsthand. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, there was an immediate and urgent need for bloodmobile locations, research funding for vaccines, and initiatives to feed and care for our healthcare providers. Generous donors offered in-kind gifts, like parking lots for bloodmobiles, in addition to responding financially to the urgent call for research and employee assistance programs. That crisis forced teams across our institution to come together and build alignment quickly, and it worked.  

While no one wants another COVID-level disaster, we can learn from the experience. For instance, CDOs can proactively deepen communication with C-suite members through quarterly meetings to strengthen understanding of cross-functional objectives, discuss priorities, and pinpoint headwinds that have an impact on cash flow – such as the timing of using cash reserves to pay for visiting nurses during a staff shortage. Or, perhaps monitoring the cash from fundraising for a capital project is critical to meeting the demands of the financial plan. A need for cash to recruit a physician-scientist could be met, in part, through a partnership between development and the CFO’s office to identify philanthropic research funds, realized bequest intentions, or spendable revenue in an endowment.   

Working together, both groups can identify where their work intersects and how each person’s efforts advance shared goals.  

When stress is high and urgent issues arise, misconceptions about key players and their motivations can derail productive problem-solving. Providing CDOs a seat at the table alongside their C-suite colleagues can allow hospitals and medical centers to make the most of philanthropic support, aligned with the vision and priorities being set by institutional leaders. 

Patty Hill Callahan, Senior Vice President has more than 30 years of experience in academic medicine and higher education advancement. She speaks nationally on such topics as the creation of grateful patient programs and best practices in principal gift fundraising. For guidance in implementing these ideas, as well as developing your institution’s fundraising strategy, contact Patty at phillcallahan@grenzglier.com 

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About the author

Patty Hill-Callahan

Senior Vice President

Patty has led advancement for The Ohio State University, Wexner Medical Center and the seven health sciences colleges, including strategy and execution of fundraising, alumni engagement and philanthropic communications.  Her responsibilities include the Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, the Richard M.…