From Personalized Medicine to Personalized Giving: Building a Health Sciences Needs List that Inspires

Most likely, if you are reading this piece you appreciate the importance of creating a compelling case for support that is consistent with your institution’s strategic priorities. That means digging into the elements that go into bringing your institution’s strategic plan from a document on the shelf to action and eventually reality.

Most of us have probably struggled with how to go about organizing a needs list with accurate “price tags.”  Plainly put, the needs list is where the rubber meets the road and is worth a considerable investment of planning time. A well done needs list guides the needs statement; it is an essential component of the case for support. It is the opportunity when all of your stakeholders – physicians, nurses, scientists, social workers, and other providers – get to dream. They are not only encouraged but are charged with dreaming about what is needed in their unit or department to accomplish strategic goals, build programs and facilities and, in so doing, distinguish your institution. This process pushes us to make tough decisions – what can we realistically expect philanthropy to accomplish and what must be achieved through other sources. They are exercises that have challenged more than one seasoned development officer with expectation management!


I have personally worked with two health care institutions that were easily able to generate well over $2 billion in needs in anticipation of an upcoming campaign. So, how do we as advancement officers for a large hospital system, community hospital or academic health sciences institution successfully manage this process? Before going on to a step-by-step process of building a needs list, let’s take a lesson from our health care colleagues. We hope you will not only be better prepared to build a needs list, but hopefully, you will be equipped to create a needs list with your colleagues that will inspire informed philanthropic investments!

For the past two decades or so, physicians and scientists have teamed together to develop personalized treatment strategies and “designer drugs” that will optimize the individual patient’s responses and outcomes. Personalized medicine leverages the advances in what biomedical science has learned about an individual’s “molecular fingerprints” to develop targeted therapeutics. Today, physicians are able, with ever-increasing pace, to customize and tailor approaches to effective prevention and care.

We too need customized approaches and donor-centric opportunities to present to our philanthropic partners that become a prescription for impact; for making a difference in the lives of the people we serve and to the biomedical enterprise.

Going back to the basics: The Strategic Plan

Strategic planning is a management tool and process that engages the institution’s key stakeholders in shaping and agreeing upon the direction of the organization. It is a time to focus on institutional vision and priorities and develop a plan that the stakeholders are committed to working towards to achieve shared goals.

This may be one of if not the most challenging times in health care advancement in our country. The changing health care landscape is requiring that institutions reexamine how we get the business of health care delivery done. In the face of the unknown combined with a slow recovery from the most significant recession since the Great Depression, it’s easy to loose our footing. Even the best development officers may find themselves nearly paralyzed in the face of an ever-changing environment.

Recognize that this is a time to refocus and return to the basics. Your institution may recommit or redefine itself in response to or in anticipation of the changing environment. Regardless, the strategic plan and a road map to its implementation are essential ingredients and the first steps in arriving at a rational and compelling needs statement and list.

If you do not have an up to date strategic plan, or if it is time to reevaluate, lobby for it! If a campaign is in the works, this plan becomes even more essential. Later, when it comes time to prioritize and probably pare down that burgeoning needs list, it is the strategic plan that will be your guide as you work with an array of physicians, health care providers, administrators and hospital leadership to prioritize. Why? Because, hopefully, it is their plan too! The vision and strategic plan should be part of the DNA of your organization -- the institutional “molecular fingerprint.”

Program Statement

We all know that the institutional strategic plan is the basis for a successful advancement program. However, it may not be immediately clear how the strategic plan translates into a needs list. One client had done a fabulous job of developing a strategic plan and action plan for each unit and center of excellence, including the advancement program. Unfortunately, the development program’s objectives were not tied back to the philanthropic needs identified as a result of the planning that went on in the units and centers of excellence. Rather, the development office’s action plan focused on performance goals for development officers, such as targets for growing corporate giving and the direct mail programs, but for what purpose?

We recommend taking the strategic plan and road map to your department chair together with his or her department administrator or finance officer for an in-depth discussion about the philanthropic implications of the plan for the service area. No doubt, the strategic plan calls for the development of new programs and possibly facilities and the expansion of others. Very likely, the finance officer has already initiated a financial evaluation process. As the development officer responsible for raising the funds and meeting the goals at the end of that evaluation process, we need a seat at that table too! This is the perfect time to carve out a partnership with the finance officer, if it does not already exist. It is very likely that the finance officer is getting some clear ideas of what the department’s or service line’s budget needs are going to look like. Our best advice is to get out in front of the process, or at least become a full partner with your colleagues as the financial evaluation moves forward.

With the buy-in from your department chair or chief and an agreement on programmatic needs, your next step is a program statement. The program statement describes the vision, plan and potential impact of the project or program. Yes, the program statement is another essential ingredient and will likely provide the language from which many proposals may germinate. In our experience, the responsible person best composes the program statement. Nonetheless, advancement plays a crucial role in helping to guide the draft of the program statement. It is important for the author(s) to understand that this is the opportunity to fully answer the points below, and it is essential to the fundraising enterprise:

·      The program description

·      Its position, relevance and need in the context of the institution’s mission     and vision

·      The timing

·      The requisite resources needed; and, of course,

·      That all-important issue of space.

It is not unusual for important questions to arise while the program statement is being drafted, sending the planners back to the drawing board for more discussion, evaluation, decision making, and hopefully getting to the bottom of those important components described above.

Needs Assessment

Once the program statement is completed, it’s time to convene the author(s), financial officer and other key stakeholders to conduct a needs assessment for each program. The strategic plan and program statement(s) are the backbone of a finely crafted needs list. They prepare the way for assessing the needs. If properly executed, the program statement will identify a range of resource needs which, depending upon the complexity of the program or project, will probably best be achieved through a mix of funders including private and federal or state funds, institutional commitments, and perhaps debt. A thorough needs assessment considers all types of funding and their timing whether it is current use or endowed funds. Although perhaps a somewhat grueling process, this is where the advancement officer’s best people and discipline skills come into play as he or she convenes the stakeholders and keeps the focus on the project until the job is done. By understanding the timing and role each funding source plays, the advancement and financial officers are able to craft a plan for how one source may leverage another. The leveraging scenario lends itself particularly well to health care advancement. Hospitals and research buildings, and even smaller clinics and laboratories are very complex facilities frequently requiring a sophisticated financial structure. Understanding the role that each funding source plays and the plan for securing them is essential to the CEO and advancement officer’s ability to eloquently state the need for each funding source and their interdependence upon one another.

A former client was building a proteomics research facility in a medical center. Once the program statement was written we were able to understand the full range of needs, none of which could be achieved through only one type of funder: institutional, private, or federal. We were able to articulate a comprehensive needs list for the lead prospect that described the institutional funds committed on the front end of the project, the role of philanthropy in advancing the project whether it was hiring new scientists or acquiring equipment, and the subsequent role of NIH funds as scientists planned future grant applications. The plan and accompanying needs list were even able to depict the timing of hiring plans over five years and their essential role to the project. The beauty of this type of approach is that it enables the lead donor(s) as well as others who follow to understand their role and the importance and timing (urgency) of their philanthropic investment to the project’s success. These donors become highly educated about the project and involved in its success; more likely to stay attuned to the project’s progress and again future donors.

Shaping an Inspired Needs List

How easy it becomes to stray from the strategic goals when we get down to the brass tacks of committing to the needs list! We may feel compelled to find a way to encompass a major donor’s interest or acquiesce to an influential stakeholder’s pressures. Staying true to the institution’s strategic goals can be challenging! Suddenly new projects and programs appear that may be just as worthy and important as those already identified. Indeed, they may be goals the institution deems necessary to fulfill. If this is the scenario development is in, it is time for a frank discussion about phasing in and sequencing projects. Perhaps a new outpatient tower is built after the main hospital is completed, or the Translational Research Building is built after the Basic Sciences Building. The growth and design of health sciences facilities and programs are enormously complex propositions. The design of new facilities involve a master campus plan, appropriate relationship building with neighborhood organizations, the program statement, finance and debt structuring, the purchase of new land, securing certificates of need, cultivating buy-in from all the affected stakeholders who may or may not be affected, board approval...all in their proper order. No wonder, the needs list may almost become an after thought or a burgeoning billion-dollar list!

Reverting to the strategic plan and the stated goals is an important exercise at this juncture. Paring down the needs list will likely require that hard decisions be made and priorities set, and that they are both blessed and conveyed by the institutional and volunteer leadership. Making these decisions within the framework of an agreed upon plan helps keep all the stakeholders on the same page and hopefully pulling in the same direction. We all know that our internal audience is just as important, and sometimes just as challenging, to keep onboard as the external audience!

A final word of caution: it is easy for one needs list for a hospital, clinic or research building to look just like another. Resist the temptation to pull out the same model and simply re-tweak. Instead, this is the time to reflect your institutional fingerprint! By tying a truly unique needs list back to the case statement which is representative of your institutional distinctions you will create a “molecular fingerprint’ of your organization for giving. The process of designing tailored proposals that meet the interest of your donors then becomes a satisfying and highly successful outcome for the institution for your philanthropic partners!