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The Development Officer Goes Back to School

In August of 2022, I did something totally strange. I started school with many medical students. No, I am not becoming a physician. I started a two-year journey towards becoming a mental health counselor.


Maybe it’s not that strange to some. After all, how many gift officers sat in donor visits taking stock of what deeply personal information was shared with us and thought, “I feel like this is therapy?” I have always felt it was therapeutic work listening to donors, attending to signs of their passion, distress and what matters most to them, including their desires to see and be a part of change in their worlds. Don’t get me wrong, I had an objective to support my organization by connecting donors’ passions and money to funding priorities. That’s very different than the role of a therapist. Yet, at the core of my work—our work as philanthropy officers—is the development of relationships built on trust, empathy and a shared mission.


Amid the daily grind and stress of systemic challenges in health care, we cannot lose sight of our work. These relationships we build are precious. It is through these relationships with our donors that we create transformational impact, not just on our institutions and programs but also on our communities of patients, colleagues, clinicians and other key stakeholders. I recently introduced myself to a handful of doctor of osteopathy students during an inter-program educational event, a hallmark of my school and their commitment to collaboration across helping professions working together. I was two decades older than most in the group, but what stood out to all of them was my career pivot. They were curious about the health care philanthropy landscape and what it was like to ask donors for money, especially as it relates to health care. One student asked me what was the most significant gift I had ever requested. I knew he was asking how much money I had asked for, but what I responded with was that the greatest gift I ever asked for was a lifetime commitment to partner on solving community health disparities and access to care. That ask was built on a relationship developed through lengthy and profound conversations about privilege, family experiences and a desire to change past wrongs. That relationship was made possible through listening, attending to the donor’s values and looking for opportunities to partner to accomplish change.

The greatest gift I ever asked for was a lifetime commitment to partner on solving community health disparities and access to care.

How does my new school experience impact and influence health care philanthropy officers? Why have I chosen this pivot and how do I anticipate it helping health care philanthropy officers who partner with us? The work of philanthropy teams is vital. HOW we work with donors is worth a deeper dive. Transactional requests and donations are quickly (thankfully) becoming a thing of the past. Relationships are key. Evaluating, understanding and applying human behavior can change an initial gift into transformational impact. We work in an evolving field and in health care, that evolution is fast. What remains constant is our need to develop donor relationships that are here for the long haul, through the ups and downs of change with an unwavering connection to a shared purpose.


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About the Author: Jessica Carswell, CFRE, is a Senior Consultant with Accordant. She can be reached at Jessica@AccordantHealth.com or through LinkedIn.


This is the first in a series from Jessica. We will share more of her school experiences, how they help impact health care philanthropy work and how it corresponds with Accordant's transformational major gifts services.

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