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Five Elements of a Robust Grateful Engagement Strategy

Grateful engagement (formerly known as the “grateful patient program”) is a strategy that guides health care organizations to proactively engage grateful patients and families in sharing and celebrating stories of gratitude. Grateful patient engagement (GPE) also allows patients and families to express their gratitude for care through philanthropy. A key success factor is the development of strategic partnerships with key internal allies (such as physicians, clinicians, nursing leaders, service line leaders and administrative leaders) to help identify, cultivate and steward grateful patient and family donors. A successful grateful engagement strategy not only elevates gratitude within health care organizations but also enables a streamlined and robust approach to generating continuous pools of new prospective donors. Therefore, grateful engagement should be embraced by every member of the organization’s development team and should be a top priority for the organization’s daily work.

Whether embarking upon the organization’s first grateful engagement strategy or fine-tuning existing efforts, five key elements are essential in guiding the endeavor:

  1. Leadership Engagement – To weave a sustainable effort into the culture of the health care organization, it is essential to elevate awareness and secure ownership from the governing board of trustees, foundation board members, executive team and clinical and service line leaders. Philanthropy leaders should be prepared to have conversations with leadership about the importance of grateful engagement and why their buy-in and support are essential. While securing verbal buy-in is a great first step, organizations will have more success if their leaders take an active role in grateful engagement by personally inviting physician and clinician partners to participate. Physician, clinician and nurse partners will look for cues from leadership when evaluating their role and commitment to partnering with the foundation; a personal invitation from an executive leader sends a strong message that partnering with the foundation is a worthy endeavor. It is also essential to involve leadership in recognizing physician and clinician partners who are actively helping to identify and cultivate grateful patient and family prospects.

  2. Business Intelligence, Infrastructure & Operations – Having the necessary infrastructure and operational elements in place to support the grateful engagement strategy is critical. Effective business intelligence begins from the ground up. Data integrity, clear workflows and concise policies and procedures ensure the operations team is aligned with the GPE strategy. Intelligent database architecture safeguards private patient data and protects the stories gathered from personal conversations with families and clinicians. Building mutually respectful relationships with cross-functional teams, such as legal, information systems, risk management, privacy and patient experience, fosters a strong system-wide support team, communicates the importance of the GPE strategy across many levels and elevates the value of philanthropy. Building “metrics in motion” supports a culture of measuring only the most important elements and is directly in the philanthropic officer’s control. Overall, solid operations build trust, provide the necessary structure to help demonstrate impact and move an organization’s GPE strategy forward.

  3. Philanthropic Gift Officer Activation – The performance of philanthropic gift officers, including their ability to nurture trusting relationships with internal allies such as physicians, clinicians, nursing and service line leaders, is arguably the most critical component to advancing a successful grateful engagement strategy. Even the best-trained clinician partner will need constant reminders and re-education on how to introduce grateful patients and families to the foundation. Yet, training alone will not guarantee the partner is prepared to attend cultivation meetings with philanthropy officers, lead tours or speak on the foundation’s behalf at events and meetings. Philanthropic gift officers must prioritize the continued cultivation and engagement of clinician partners and build the relationship in the same manner as their relationships with major gift donors. This often takes significant time and requires consistency, grit and new competencies as the focus pivots from external community partners to internal allies. Philanthropy leaders can encourage the engagement of clinician partners by approaching strategic meetings and engagement activities with the same emphasis as engaging major gift prospects.

  4. Ally & Clinician Partner Well-Being – It is not acceptable or effective to merely provide gratitude training to physician, clinician and nurse partners and expect them to start making grateful patient and family introductions immediately. While baseline education on the science of gratitude and the process of introducing a patient or family member to the foundation is crucial in establishing credibility, training alone does not elicit action. Philanthropy officers must FIRST build genuine relationships with clinician partners and familiarize them with the foundation’s current funding priorities and how philanthropy benefits the organization. Regarding engagement and participation, it is important to carefully consider the personal preferences and strengths of each clinician partner. Some may be comfortable talking to patients and families directly and attending cultivation meetings; others may prefer to stay behind the scenes, lead tours or speak at events. By working closely with clinician partners to discover their passion and motivation for involvement, philanthropy officers can ensure the relationship is beneficial to the clinician.

  5. Communications and Collateral – Strategy and tactics generally falter without significant consideration and effort to build a resounding culture that supports philanthropy. Strategic communications can be integral to building a widespread organizational culture of gratitude. Gratitude-branded communications and collateral strengthens the grateful engagement strategy by increasing the organization’s internal awareness and ability to help patients, families and donors easily share and celebrate stories of gratitude.

Grateful engagement is comprehensive, multi-faceted and touches nearly every aspect of the health care organization. Advancing a grateful engagement strategy can become overwhelming and resource-heavy without steadfast focus on strategic decision-making. The most important step in ensuring a strategic and right-sized grateful engagement effort is to center it around existing and future funding priorities. Communications and direct outreach should first be addressed to patients within the funding priority service lines. If restrictions need to be established regarding the amount of patient data usage, utilize only patient data within these service lines. Most importantly, only clinician partners within service lines and clinical areas supported by the funding priorities should be recruited. This results in clinician partners better understanding why their involvement is needed and ensures there are viable projects to discuss with prospective grateful patients and families.

About the Authors:

Erin Stitzel, FAHP, CFRE, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant and a leader in building robust clinician partnerships to advance philanthropy. You can reach her through email at or through LinkedIn.

Debbie Ferguson, CFRE, is a Senior Consultant for Philanthropy Operations and Data with Accordant. She specializes in best practices for data solutions, integration and governance as well as patient program evaluation, creation and development. She can be reached at or through LinkedIn.

Accordant White Paper_5 Elements of Grateful Engagement Strategy
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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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