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Health Care Philanthropy: An Overlooked Pathway to Drive Quality and Patient Experience

A hospital’s or health system’s purpose is to deliver high quality care with an excellent patient experience, returning those entrusted to care to the fullest life possible. In nonprofit health care, hospitals also have a mission to lift the overall health and well-being of the communities they serve.

In a perfect environment, our health care institutions and our donors want the same things and work together for these results. However, it is possible that hospital leadership, boards and individual donors overlook the full power of this potential partnership.

Today’s complex and changing environment demands unprecedented attention and change-management skills from executive leaders. Hospital community boards and foundation boards are faced with governance issues in a newly skeptical environment while in the throes of significant financial recalibration.

In an environment of complex change, scarce financial resources and pervasive mistrust, the healing power of philanthropy is more crucial than ever—and grateful patients hold the key.

Consider this recent headline in Becker’s: “’Hospital purgatory’: Confidence in healthcare plunges as criticism grows louder and larger,” and the accompanying quote from Ge Bai, PhD, “The hospital has moved away from its traditional charitable mission and toward a business orientation that is undeniable… clinicians are the heroes, but hospitals are maybe not as altruistic as they once thought.”¹

In an environment of complex change, scarce financial resources and pervasive mistrust, the healing power of philanthropy is more crucial than ever – and grateful patients hold the key.

While the general public’s trust in hospitals may have declined, grateful patients and families who have experienced care have developed deeply meaningful relationships with physicians, nurses and the hospital. Trust has been earned, and a need to reciprocate is evident in many post-care conversations. This feeling of gratitude is far beyond appreciating a job well done – it is the very source of transformative generosity and is a powerful force to harness.

Health care philanthropy leaders are in a unique position to build strong alliances between health system executives, board members, grateful families and physician partners through a rigorous and shared process of philanthropy project selection. To accelerate buy-in and ownership, as well as to ensure strategic alignment, project selection should clearly tap into the expertise of executive leaders as well as physician and nurse leaders. Foundation board or council members - often grateful patients themselves - have an explicit charge to participate in project selection to ensure the donor’s perspective is honored. Less obvious to some, hospital board members have a role as well. The local hospital board has both insight into the financial need for philanthropy and access to other leaders in the community to facilitate outreach to grateful patients and other donors.

In an article published by the American Hospital Association in January 2023², co-authors Betsy Chapin Taylor and Erica Osborne note that in many hospitals, traditional governance responsibilities have migrated from the local board to a health system level. Of the responsibilities still fulfilled locally, there are two roles that intersect with the foundation board: advocacy and philanthropy. Together, hospital and foundation board members bring unmatched credibility and trust. They have a visceral understanding of the importance of the hospital to the economic and social well-being of the community and have broad networks. Their involvement helps build philanthropic support through improved access to prospective donors, better donor engagement and retention as well as higher levels of giving.

Health care philanthropy leaders are in a unique position to build strong alliances between health system executives, board members, grateful families and physician partners through a rigorous and shared process of philanthropy project selection.

To be considered a low-risk, high-ROI stream of revenue for the hospital, philanthropy dollars must be deployed to enhance patient experience, quality metrics or community health measures. There are no extra dollars to spare – CEOs must deliver performance from every dollar invested. Hospitals cannot afford to raise philanthropy dollars for non-strategic expenditures, fluffy extras or side projects.

This means philanthropy leaders must be in lockstep with the hospital CEO, clinical leaders and boards as they develop and execute on strategy. It is imperative to break through the harsh realities of executive overwhelm, political pressure, scarce resources and uninspiring projects so philanthropy can successfully support patient outcomes and experience.

A collaborative and purposeful process for selection of philanthropy projects should lift quality-enhancing initiatives and patient experience objectives, while simultaneously enriching the relationships between those who must achieve these results. Done well, the selection process improves alignment around agreed-upon objectives, reduces the power of pet projects and promotes the buy-in that occurs when stakeholders have a voice.

A true partnership among all stakeholders has a hidden benefit for grateful patient philanthropy: as philanthropy professionals look for access and connection points with grateful families, board members are often able to bolster the effectiveness of referrals from clinical and executive allies.

It is helpful to acknowledge that hospitals will have priorities that will not line up with donor passions. These are often critical infrastructure projects or even deferred maintenance projects that must proceed with or without philanthropic funding. Selection of philanthropy projects does not block these types of projects - it simply provides an additional, very-welcome funding source in the capital and operational budget.

The realities of capital funding mean that as donors augment the internally available capital budget by funding philanthropy projects, the hospital can release internal funding to allocate for other necessities. This is in the best interest of all concerned. Hospital capital committees and budget decision makers want to fund high-priority capital projects that enhance quality and patient experience, but often must bow to the realities of constrained resources. Grateful families also want the elevators and operating room lights to function reliably but rarely give directly to fund these initiatives. In the final analysis, everyone wins when vibrant philanthropy is deployed to accomplish prioritized strategic objectives.

Transformative Philanthropy™ can occur when hospital and board leaders work together to identify and prioritize strategic projects for philanthropic funding. Philanthropy leaders and board members can work together to engage strong donor partners to fund them. The process to identify priorities that solve strategic issues while engaging the passions of donors builds trust and positively impacts not only the organization but often improves the community as a whole. Let’s get started…

¹ Becker’s Hospital Review, February 1, 2023 article by Jakob Emerson

² AHA Trustee Services, January 2023, When Hospital/Health System and Foundation Boards Intersect

Accordant Perspectives_Health Care Philanthropy
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About the Author: Cindy Reynolds, CFRE, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant. She specializes in strategic planning, board engagement, philanthropy operations and Strategically Aligned Project Selection™ (SAPS). She can be reached at or through LinkedIn.


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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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