Health Care Philanthropy: The Role of Senior Leadership in Building a Strong Culture of Philanthropy

Susan Holt, President

Susan Holt, President

We spend a lot of time working with clients on building high performance fundraising programs.  Typically, when clients approach us, they have a specific project or task in mind:  conducting a campaign feasibility study and plan; strategic planning for the fundraising program; vetting staffing and development plans; building the annual fund; or developing their boards, to name a few. 

Rarely, do clients call us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a real issue with the culture of philanthropy at our place.  Our President and senior leaders are focused on how to survive in this environment.  No one has time to think about their role in fundraising.  I can’t even get access to them!  We need help with that!'  It is far easier, and probably much less threatening, to identify other concrete issues or tasks that require attention. Yet, the hospital’s culture of philanthropy is likely to be at the root of many challenges faced by the development program.

More often than not, if there is an essential element that is missing, one that will make or break a truly high performance fundraising operation, it is just that—its philanthropic culture.  Specifically, that is an organizational culture that, from the top to the bottom, values, supports and nurtures philanthropy and the role it plays. 

Everyone knows that leadership starts at the top.  The tone set by the formal or even the informal leaders permeate through the organization.  It dictates how business gets done.  The best leadership team embodies the organization’s values and clearly espouses the vision. 

The Board, President, senior physicians and chief development officer are the most visible representatives of the hospital in the community and beyond. Not surprisingly, that same group is the architect of the hospital’s culture of philanthropy. And again, as in all aspects of the institution’s culture, the President sets the tone and establishes philanthropy as an institutional priority… or maybe not.

Although leadership is key, high-performing fundraising programs require the efforts of a well-orchestrated team. The participation of the full management team and the physicians is critical to the program’s success.  Every person associated with the hospital plays a role in the culture and ultimately in advancing the hospital through philanthropy. That said, the senior team sets the pace internally and externally, establishing the hospital as an institution worthy of the highest philanthropic investments and acknowledging the value philanthropy plays in achieving institutional goals.  In today’s evolving health care marketplace with shrinking resources, hospitals’ dependence upon philanthropy is becoming even more crucial.

Beyond articulating the role and impact of philanthropy to achieving vision, the importance of the senior leaders’ position in building relationships cannot be overstated. Truly meaningful philanthropic investments do not occur until the donor (philanthropic investor) has developed a personal relationship with the institution’s leader(s).  This is a relationship that is built over time on trust, inspiration, and confidence … in this case, confidence in his or her ability to effectively manage and achieve a shared vision. Hospitals and health care institutions are in enviable positions in their ability to form both deep emotional and intellectual bonds with their benefactors and donors.

Nonetheless, health care institutions can also be some of the most challenging places to mobilize senior leadership given the complexity of the organizations and the nature of the business. Nevertheless, well-planned and effective allocation of the senior leaders’ time at critical junctures is essential.

It is incumbent upon the development office, especially the chief development officer, to manage the disposition of the senior leaders’ time in the most effect ways possible.   It is up to the development office to assure that leaders are focusing on the right donors and prospects at the right time.  Similarly, it is critical that the President and other senior leaders create true partnerships with the development team. The development team needs regular access to the President and other key leaders, privately or in small groups, as well as time on the agenda to debrief on meetings, appointments, or even unscheduled conversations with prospects, vet donor strategies and agree on next steps.  Similarly, it is equally important that the development office equip the President with timely, well-vetted information and recommended strategies well in advance of development calls.

The role of the President or chief executive officer and his or her partnership with the development team is just one aspect of developing a culture of philanthropy.  In our next blog, we will explore the role physicians play and tactics for building both the President’s and the physicians’ partnership.  In the meantime, we welcome your comments or questions!